Cheney Mideast trip to build on Iraq conference
by Olivier Knox
WASHINGTON (AFP) - US Vice President Dick Cheney leaves Tuesday on a four-country visit of the Middle East, looking to shore up support for Iraq among its neighbors and increase pressure on Iran, US officials say.
Cheney's May 8-14 trip to the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan comes amid tensions between the United States and its staunch Saudi allies over Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's fragile government.
Saudi King Abdullah recently refused to meet with Maliki because, according to a Riyadh-based Arab diplomat, the monarch believes the prime minister has "entrenched" the deadly Shiite-Sunni sectarian conflict in Iraq.
Asked whether Cheney would address such tensions during his trip, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino told reporters: "I think that I'll let the vice president and the Saudis have their conversations privately."
There have also been Saudi-US tensions over the king's proposed Middle East peace plan, but US officials downplayed the impact of the vice president's pending visit on efforts to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
"He's really more going to focus on regional security, with Iraq being the centerpiece, and focus on the challenges posed by Iran," said US National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe.
"The president asked the vice president to travel to the Middle East to follow up on the Iraq regional security conference in Egypt," at the Sharm el-Sheikh Red Sea resort, said Johndroe.
"Overall for the meeting that took place in Sharm el-Sheikh, we're very satisfied. But there's follow-up to do," said Perino.
"But we obviously appreciate very much the support that Iraq was shown by the neighbors in the region," she said. "We have challenges in the region and it's important that everyone be working together in order to help solve them."
Cheney will meet with UAE President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahayan, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, and Jordan's King Abdullah II, according to a statement released by his office.
"The vice president also will meet with US military commanders and speak with US troops stationed in the Persian Gulf region," it said.
The trip will be Cheney's second major foray overseas this year. He traveled to Japan, Guam, Australia, Oman, Pakistan and Afghanistan in late February.
The visit comes after US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice held an unprecedented meeting with her Syrian counterpart Walid Muallem on the sidelines of the conference in Egypt.
"I would say it was professional, businesslike. It was very concrete... I didn't lecture him, he didn't lecture me," Rice told reporters after the half-hour meeting.
The White House, which denounced a meeting last month between US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (news, bio, voting record) and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, downplayed Rice's meeting as informal and not negotiations.
And Perino expressed no regrets that similar talks with Iran did not take place, saying that Rice would have been "pleased" to meet with Tehran's foreign minister and noting that there was a lower-level US-Iran discussion.
Late last year, a heavyweight US panel urged US President George W. Bush to open a dialogue with Tehran and Damascus, saying doing so was a key part of efforts to reduce violence in Iraq.
Washington accuses Syria of allowing foreign fighters into Iraq and charges that Iran has provided weapons and training for forces that target US and Iraqi troops.
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