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Rice Holds Talks With Saudis

Rice (left) with Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit in Luxor on January 15 (epa) January 16, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is continuing her visit to the Middle East with a stop in Saudi Arabia today.

She is trying to sell the new U.S. strategy in Iraq and looking for solutions to what U.S. says are Iranian attempts to destablize Iraq.

Rice met first with Saudi King Abdullah at the start of a series of meetings in Riyadh.

Then, after talks with Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal, she said the Saudis had been "very helpful" regarding Iraq.

"We have the same goal, which is an Iraq that is unified, whose territorial integrity is intact, which does not face outside interference and meddling," Rice said, "an Iraq in which all Iraqi citizens are treated equally and can count on the protection of the state without regard to religion or ethnicity."

Cautious Support On Iraq

But al-Faisal was cautious in his support.

He said his government hoped the U.S. plans to turn around the situation in Iraq would be successful, but he was skeptical the current Iraqi government was up to the task.

Many in the Arab world distrust Iraq's government, dominated by Shi'a, believing it is serving Iran's interests at the expense of Sunnis.

Mustafa Alani, a regional expert at the Dubai-based Gulf Research Center, says it is too early to judge whether Rice has succeeded in her mission.

However, he says it is clear that the region is more eager to help the United States than it was before.

"The region feels the impact, the negative impact of the Iranian interventionist policy, especially in Iraq," Alani says. "So, the region has an interest now to basically join the United States in these counter-measures. But the problem is that they don't trust the United States. They need evidence; they need assurances. They need practical steps to prove that the United States [wants stability], that this is the intention of the policy of the United States."

Countering Iran

Alani says now is the right time to solve some serious problems of the Middle East and the United States should use the opportunity.

"The environment now is changing," he says. "And the United States is weak and needs help from the regional countries. So, I think now is the right time to discover what the United States can do and what the regional states can do in helping the United States to get out of the problems."

He says a new strategic block is emerging in the Middle East, comprising Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the Persian Gulf States.

The grouping is concerned with the growing ambitions of Iran, the biggest Shi'ite state in the world, and this concern in part coincides with sentiments in Washington.

In this situation, other serious problems might start moving too.

Focus On The Palestinian Conflict

Yesterday in Egypt, Rice promised Washington would do what it could to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian problem, which has become a serious stumbling block in relations between the United States and the Muslim world.

"I explained [to President Mubarak] that I will soon meet with [Israeli] Prime Minister Olmert and with [Palestinian Authority] President [Mahmud] Abbas to have discussions about the broad issues on the horizon, so that we can work on the road map, to try and accelerate the road map, and to move to the establishment of a Palestinian state," she said.

Later today, Rice is heading to Kuwait to meet the foreign ministers of eight Arab countries to continue her quest for assistance on Iraq and discussions on Iran.

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