ANALYSIS-Cheney, Saudi king to assess Iraq policy and Iran
By Andrew Hammond
RIYADH (Reuters) - When U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney meets Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah in the remote desert town of Tabuk Saturday, two old allies will assess whether U.S. policy is helping or hindering regional stability.
Analysts say that over the last six months tension has crept into a relationship that has been a foundation stone for U.S. political and economic influence in the Gulf Arab region which looks to Washington for military support.
But the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 has turned traditional thinking on its head, exposing the limits of U.S. military power and putting Shi'ite Iran and its allies in Arab countries at the vanguard of a new phase of anti-Americanism.
"The Americans are desperate for Saudi support for their policy in the region. They are really in a weak position. They need the Saudis more than the Saudis need them now," said Dubai-based analyst Mustafa Alani.
But this radicalism is a threat to Saudi Arabia too.
Diplomats in Riyadh, which sees itself as the bastion of Sunni Islam, say that when Cheney visited the region in November King Abdullah expressed anger over the fate of Sunnis in Iraq's sectarian fighting and Tehran's nuclear energy program.
Cheney said Iran, which he described as a major concern to Sunni Arab states, would top his talks with Arab leaders.
"The (Iranians) are obviously a major source of concern not only for the United States but also for most of our friends in the area, who are worried when they see an Iranian government that appears to be operating in a threatening manner...So Iran is a big area of concern," Cheney told Fox News Thursday.
Iran denies any intention to develop nuclear weapons but the United States and Israel have threatened military action if efforts to halt its civilian nuclear drive come to nothing.
Riyadh also opened its own diplomatic channel with Tehran, even receiving President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad who is an unpopular figure in Saudi political circles and Saudi-controlled media.
King Abdullah, who crafts the image of a pan-Arab populist, even told an Arab summit in March that the U.S. military presence in Iraq was an "illegitimate occupation." "King Abdullah has started to position himself as an Arab leader autonomous from the United States," said Amr Hamzawy of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.
But he added: "Strategically, the United States and Saudi Arabia remain extremely close."
The king even mediated a deal between the U.S.-backed Fatah group of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Islamist group Hamas, which Washington had been trying to isolate over its refusal to recognize Israel or lay down arms.
ARAB DEMANDS ON IRAQ
With domestic pressure strong in the United States for the bulk of its troops to leave Iraq this year or 2008, Saudi Arabia and its Arab allies Egypt and Jordan want Washington to press Iraq's Shi'ite-led government to broker a new political deal with Sunnis.
They want to see the Iraqi constitution rewritten, Shi'ite militias disbanded, the oil law repealed, and Sunnis ensured a fundamentally larger role in a new divvying up of power.
Saudi officials have given the impression of having lost faith in the Iraqi government led by Nuri al-Maliki to end sectarianism, and the Saudi and Iraqi media have suggested Maliki was recently rebuffed in a desire to visit Riyadh.
For its part, Iraq believes Arab countries could do more to put down a Sunni insurgency that kills hundreds of Shi'ite civilians by the week in suicide bomb attacks.
Cheney's trip follows on from last week's conference on Iraq at the Egyptian resort of Sharm al-Sheikh, where Washington began tentative steps to talk with old foes, Iran and Syria.
Diplomats say Cheney's stop off just for several hours in a distant northern town to meet the king shows a desire to warm up recently cooler relations.
"There's a degree of political flattery involved. Cheney carries political weight as a personal representative of Bush in a way that (U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza) Rice doesn't," one diplomat said. "He makes an effort to come all this way to talk about American policy in the region, and the Saudis lap that up."
Diplomats in Riyadh however note discordant voices among the Saudi leadership. The king fears a U.S. attack on Iran, but his maverick envoy Prince Bandar bin Sultan is seen as a hawk. "One thing Saudis will want to know is how seriously the United States is weighing the military option against Iran," said Hamzawy.
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