By Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Senate cleared the way for a $1.15 billion sale of tanks and other military equipment to Saudi Arabia on Wednesday, defending a frequent partner in the Middle East recently subject to harsh criticism in Congress.

The Senate voted 71 to 27 to kill legislation that would have stopped the sale.

The overwhelming vote stopped an effort led by Republican Senator Rand Paul and Democratic Senator Chris Murphy to block the deal over concerns including Saudi Arabia's role in the 18-month-long war in Yemen and worries that it might fuel an ongoing regional arms race.

The Pentagon announced on Aug. 9 that the State Department had approved the potential sale of more than 130 Abrams battle tanks, 20 armored recovery vehicles and other equipment to Saudi Arabia.

The Defense Security Cooperation Agency said General Dynamics Corp would be the principal contractor for the sale.

Paul, Murphy and other opponents of the arms deal were sharply critical of the Riyadh government during debate before the vote, citing Yemen, the kingdom's human rights record and its international support for a conservative form of Islam.

"If you're serious about stopping the flow of extremist recruiting across this globe, then you have to be serious that the ... brand of Islam that is spread by Saudi Arabia all over the world, is part of the problem," Murphy said.

The criticism came days before lawmakers are expected to back another measure seen as anti-Saudi, a bill that would allow lawsuits against the country's government by relatives of victims of the Sept. 11 attacks.

President Barack Obama has promised to veto that bill, but congressional leaders say there is a strong chance that lawmakers will override the veto and let the measure become law. Overriding a presidential veto requires a two-thirds vote in both the House and Senate.

In Yemen, where a Saudi-led coalition is battling Iranian-allied Houthis, the Houthis have accused the United States of arming and supporting the Saudis, who intervened on the side of Yemen's exiled government.

The war has killed over 10,000 people and displaced more than 3 million.

But backers of the deal said Saudi Arabia is an important U.S. ally in a war-torn region, deserving of U.S. support.

"This motion comes at a singularly unfortunate time and would serve to convince Saudi Arabia and all other observers that the United States does not live up to its commitments," Senator Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said.

(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Grant McCool and Sandra Maler)