- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 21, 2002

Vice President Richard B. Cheney began his 11-nation Middle East tour hoping to change Arab minds on Iraq. He returned home yesterday having received an earful over Israel.
Arab leaders across the region, including such key U.S. allies as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, delivered an uncharacteristically unified message to Mr. Cheney: Ending the Israeli-Palestinian violence was a greater priority for them than dealing with Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.
"To attack Baghdad now would be a disaster," Jordan's King Abdullah II told reporters after his meeting with Mr. Cheney at the beginning of the trip.
"I have told him that the Middle East cannot support two wars at the same time the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and an American intervention against Iraq," the king said, in remarks echoed by Arab leaders throughout the vice president's tour.
The death toll in the latest cycle of Israeli-Palestinian violence grew yesterday when an Islamic militant detonated a bomb on a packed rush-hour bus in the northern town of Umm al-Fahm, killing four Israeli soldiers, three other passengers and himself.
Touted as a trip to solidify Arab support for the anti-terrorism fight and to sound out regional leaders about action against Baghdad, the Cheney trip's one concrete achievement may, ironically, be the end of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's diplomatic quarantine.
Palestinian officials said Mr. Arafat will meet Mr. Cheney on Monday in Egypt, by far the highest Bush administration contact with the Palestinian leader. But both Israeli and U.S. officials cautioned the meeting would only come off if Mr. Arafat cracks down on Palestinian attacks.
On his last stop in Turkey, Mr. Cheney heard yet another variation on the theme he encountered repeatedly on his trip.
Ankara, which supported the U.S.-led coalition against Iraq in the 1991 Persian Gulf war, highlighted its doubts about the wisdom of a new strike against Saddam, which Turkish officials fear could devastate the economy and increase ethnic tensions inside Turkey.
Mr. Cheney "underlined that there will not be an operation against Iraq in the near future," Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit said after their meeting. As he has in previous stops in nine Arab capitals and Israel over the past 10 days, Mr. Cheney insisted that he had not come to the region to coordinate an immediate assault on Saddam.
"Military action is not imminent, and that's what I said at every stop," Mr. Cheney told reporters.
Mr. Cheney did receive support for the U.S. hard line on Iraq during his first stop in London.
Despite divisions in his own Labor Party over Iraq, Prime Minister Tony Blair told Mr. Cheney, "There is a threat from Saddam Hussein and the weapons of mass destruction that he has acquired. It is not in doubt at all."
The Middle East tour also is expected to quiet complaints among Arab allies that the Bush administration has not consulted them on the next steps in the terrorism war.
Bush administration officials also have cautioned that the leaders' public statements often tailored to domestic audiences may not reflect understandings and assurances reached behind closed doors.
In an interview on CNN last week, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz noted: "There is a long record in diplomacy and particularly in the Middle East, I think it is fair to say, where people say one thing in public and another to you in private."
James Phillips, a Middle East specialist at the Heritage Foundation, agreed.
"It was a foregone conclusion that the Arab leaders were not going to be supportive in public on Iraq," he said. "But what was said in private was probably a lot tougher and may not be known for a good while."
He said Mr. Cheney's trip could also prove useful in demonstrating to Arab leaders the depth of the Bush administration's resolve to deal definitively with Saddam, in contrast to what the analyst called the Clinton administration's "feckless" efforts against Iraq.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak told Mr. Cheney he would press Iraq to comply with United Nations weapons inspection demands, but said military action should only be considered if diplomacy fails.
But it was clear that, publicly at least, even the closest U.S. allies weren't willing to offer public support for an aggressive move against Baghdad.
At a joint press conference with Mr. Cheney on Monday, Kuwaiti Minister of Foreign Affairs Sheik Sabah Salem Sabah said, "Kuwait is not in support of any military strike on Iraq, not because Iraq is a friend of Kuwait but because the current circumstances are not appropriate." He urged the United States to pressure Israel instead.
Michael Collins Dunn, editor of the Washington-based Middle East Journal, said that "if the Bush administration hadn't appreciated the linkages between the two conflicts in the minds of Arab leaders before, it's safe to say it does now."
The Cheney trip provoked a counteroffensive from Saddam, who dispatched his own top diplomats this week to seven of the Arab states visited by the vice president.
A commentary yesterday by the official Iraqi News Agency said the Cheney visit had been a "bitter disappointment" for the "evil American administration."
"Cheney failed to persuade any official in the countries which he visited of Washington's pretexts and lies against Iraq and was confronted with a total rejection of any hostile attempt to attack it," INA said.


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