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Top U.S. Officials Begin Key Mission To Middle East

Gates (right) and Rice (file photo) (epa) July 30, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates today start a key Middle East mission to seek Arab support for the Iraqi government and also discuss weapons sales to regional allies. They will make rare joint visits to Egypt and Saudi Arabia before going on separate trips to other parts of the region.

On the first leg of what is seen as a "vital mission," U.S. President George W. Bush's defense chief and top diplomat are scheduled to meet ministers of the Gulf Cooperation Council countries, Egypt, and Jordan in the Egyptian resort city of Sharm El-Sheikh on July 31.

The group includes the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman, and Saudi Arabia.

"This is a case of, you ask more of your friends. And we're doing that with our friends in the region in order to help out the Iraqis."

Supporting Baghdad

Rice and Gates will then travel to Saudi Arabia to discuss Iraq and other issues.

U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said at a news briefing in Washington on July 27 that a primary objective of the tour is to seek Arab support for Iraq.

"Secretary Rice and Secretary Gates, when they go out on their trip next week, are going to be talking to the Saudis as well as others about what they might do [to support the Iraqi government]," he said. "And also, they are going to talk with them a bit about how to impart greater momentum to the work of the working groups, as well as the work of the neighbors grouping as a whole, to see what we can do to support the Iraqis."

Top U.S. officials will also discuss weapons sales to regional allies.

The White House is reported to be preparing a major arms deal with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states worth some $20 billion over the next decade.

Defense officials quoted by U.S. media said the sales will include advanced weaponry, missile-guidance systems, upgraded fighter jets, and naval ships.

Washington is seeking to strengthen moderate Mideast allies as a counterweight to Iran's growing influence.

Block To Arms Sale?

A traditional U.S. ally in the region, Saudi Arabia is expected to be a key recipient of the aid.
However, some U.S. Democrats are seeking to block the deal.

Two members of the House of Representatives (Anthony Weiner and Jerrold Nadler, both of New York) said at a news conference in New York City on July 29 that they will introduce legislation to block the Saudi arms deal in order to send "a crystal-clear message" to the Saudi government that their support for terrorists "can't go unpunished."

Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, has criticized some of Iraq's neighbors, including Saudi Arabia, of "pursuing destabilizing policies."

Khalilzad said in an interview on CNN Sunday and wrote in an op-ed piece in "The New York Times" last week that "some friends" of the United States are undermining efforts to bring peace and stability to Iraq.

As Washington is seeking more support from the Saudis, on their trip Rice and Gates are expected to ask Riyadh for greater cooperation on Iraq, as McCormack explained.

Gulf States Part Of Arms Deal

"The Saudis have provided some support to the Iraqis," he said. "We're looking for some more. They can follow through on their pledges of debt relief to the Iraqi government and providing them some security assistance. So, there are a few areas where they can follow through on pledges that they've already made. This is a case of, you ask more of your friends. And we're doing that with our friends in the region in order to help out the Iraqis."

Reports say other U.S. allies in the region, such as Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates, would also receive equipment and weapons as part of the arms deal.

The tour by Rice and Gates starts amid growing calls inside the United States to withdraw troops from Iraq as well as amid speculation that Britain -- Washington's key ally in the war on terror -- may end its military involvement in Iraq.

London's "Sunday Times" reported on July 29 that Britain's chief foreign-policy adviser had sounded out U.S. foreign-policy experts on the possibility of an early British withdrawal.

However, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has not unveiled a plan to pull out British troops from Iraq during his visit to Washington. His spokesperson said there had been no change in the government's position.

Rice will also go separately to Jerusalem for meetings with Israeli leaders and to Ramallah for talks with Palestinian Authority President Mahmud Abbas before returning to Washington on August 2.

RFE/RL Iraq Report

RFE/RL Iraq Report

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