- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Vice President Dick Cheney arrived yesterday in the Middle East for talks with the leaders of U.S. allies Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates in an effort to stem the spiraling violence in Iraq and clamp down on Iran’s rising influence in the region.

The vice president’s trip follows a visit to the region last week by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who met with her Syrian counterpart at a multilateral conference on Iraq at the Red Sea resort of Sharm el Sheik, Egypt. Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki also attended the conference, but he and Miss Rice did not meet.

Mr. Cheney is one of the Bush administration’s strongest opponents of engaging with Iran and Syria, although President Bush has been moderating his rhetoric and is said to have authorized Miss Rice’s talks with Syria. The White House said yesterday that the vice president’s trip is intended to follow up on the conference on Iraq.

“The vice president is somebody who has long relations with many of the key leaders in the region, and therefore is able to deal with them on a basis of personal trust and confidence that I think gives him special value in trying to talk about ways forward,” White House spokesman Tony Snow said. “They can have conversations that are candid, that are detailed, that are respectful.”

Although Syria and Iran will be discussed, Iraq is likely to dominate the talks. Saudi Arabia has expressed frustration with U.S. efforts to stabilize Iraq, and some Saudi leaders fear the continued violence will destabilize the entire region.

Mr. Cheney will seek to use the influence of King Abdullah II of Jordan, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia to stem Sunni violence against Shi’ites, a White House source said. He also will seek ways to protect Sunnis from militant Shi’ites, the source said.

The Saudi Arabia stop will be Mr. Cheney’s fifth to the kingdom; his last visit was in November. Shortly after he returned to Washington, it was reported that Abdullah told Mr. Cheney that the Saudis would consider providing financial backing to Iraqi Sunnis if the United States pulled out of Iraq.

Relations have soured since then. Abdullah said in March that he considers the continued U.S. presence in Iraq to be an “illegitimate foreign occupation.”

Mr. Cheney’s first stop will be Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, where he will meet with Sheik Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahayan, the UAE president. He also will visit the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis in the Persian Gulf.

The vice president is making the trip as tensions rise in the region. The Israeli Foreign Ministry confirmed last night that Miss Rice had canceled a trip to Israel scheduled for next week because of the unstable political situation in the Jewish state.

State Department spokes-man Sean McCormack said Monday that the cancellation does not impair the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

“It’s a change in plans, yes,” Mr. McCormack said, but the United States will “continue efforts to advance the Israeli-Palestinian track.”

Last week, 150,000 people protested in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square calling for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to step down over the Israeli military failures last year in the war against Hezbollah militants in Lebanon.

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