- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 1, 2007

SHARM EL SHEIK — Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, in a rare joint mission to the Middle East, yesterday urged Saudi Arabia and other neighbors of Iraq to adopt tougher border controls to stem the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq.

The two Cabinet secretaries also said they found a growing sense of alarm in the region about the prospect of an abrupt U.S. military pullout from Iraq, given the violence and instability there.

“What I have begun to hear is more and more undertone, even from those who oppose the president’s policies, of the need to take into account the consequences if we make a change in our policy and the dangers inherent in doing it unwisely,” Mr. Gates said, noting the debate in Washington over the war.

Miss Rice and Mr. Gates said they went out of their way to assure Arab leaders that President Bush will make decisions in Iraq based on long-term interests, rather than short-term political objectives.

The meeting of Mr. Bush’s most senior national security advisers with top officials from eight Arab states was the administration’s most deliberate attempt yet to convince them that what happens in Iraq will directly affect their countries.

“Everybody recognizes that, if Iraq is going to be stable against what are very difficult circumstances, everybody is going to have to do more,” Miss Rice told reporters traveling with her and Mr. Gates after what some described as an uneasy session.

“That ‘more’ includes better border patrols,” she said. Miss Rice said that follow-on working groups and “maybe even something more permanent” by Iraq’s neighbors “could really make it very hard for foreign fighters to cross those borders.”

U.S. officials say the flow of fighters into Iraq has helped fuel an insurgency that has targeted both U.S. forces and the embattled government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

A key part of the visit by the two U.S. officials is to discuss a multibillion-dollar military aid bonanza for Washington’s allies in the region, which Shi’ite Iran is accused of “destabilizing.”

Miss Rice said the borders in the region “have been permeable for many, many decades, if not longer, and so it’s not easy to talk about better border patrols, but people wish to undertake that.”

The Bush administration has issued numerous calls in the past for Iraq’s neighbors to tighten their borders. Not only have those calls not been heeded in earnest, U.S. officials said in the past several weeks, but some Sunni Arab governments are thought to have sent fighters to counter increasingly powerful Shi’ite militias in Iraq.

Saudi King Abdullah last winter was reported to have warned Vice President Dick Cheney that Saudi Arabia might resort to sending Sunni fighters into Iraq if their Iraqi brethren continue to die in large numbers.

The administration engaged in highly unusual public criticism of the Saudis’ border efforts in the past couple of weeks, capped by a newspaper opinion article signed by Zalmay Khalilzad, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and former top envoy to Baghdad.

But Saudi reaction was so strong that Miss Rice felt compelled to offer generous praise for them at the beginning of her trip Monday.

Yesterday, Miss Rice conceded, though in a very diplomatic language, that “there are neighbors of Iraq who can do more effectively than they are doing, and that by not doing that, they are not being helpful.”

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