Cheney, Saudi king discuss Iraq
US seeking to boost faith in war policy
TABUK, Saudi Arabia -- Vice President Dick Cheney traveled to Saudi Arabia yesterday to try to overcome Saudi skepticism over the US military strategy to secure Baghdad and over the leadership capabilities of Nouri al-Maliki, the Iraqi president.
Cheney met with King Abdullah at a royal palace in this northern city. The king, while considered an important US ally in the Arab world, increasingly has sent signals that he doubts the effectiveness of President Bush's troop buildup in Iraq.
Abdullah also has signaled that he sees Maliki as a weak leader with too many ties to pro-Iranian Shi'ite parties to be effective in reaching out to Iraq's Sunni minority. Saudi Arabia is predominantly Sunni Muslim.
Cheney was given a red-carpet arrival ceremony at the airport. At the palace, as he and the king exchanged pleasantries, Abdullah asked about the first President Bush. The elder Bush assembled a broad international coalition, including Saudi Arabia, to confront Saddam Hussein's Iraq in the 1991 Gulf War.
Cheney, Bush's defense secretary, said the former president was doing well. "He's still willing to jump out of airplanes," Cheney said.
For his 80th birthday, Bush made a 13,000-foot tandem parachute jump over his presidential library in Texas in 2004; the 41st president, now 82, jumped alone on his 75th birthday. "I did not want to do it when I was 60 and he's done it twice now," the 66-year-old Cheney said.
Cheney is touring Saudi Arabia and the smaller Gulf states in an attempt to win wider support for ethnic reconciliation in Iraq and to counter efforts by Iran to spread its influence in the region.
After a four-hour meeting with the king that included dinner, Cheney headed for Aqaba, Jordan, to spend the evening before meetings today. He was expected to visit Egypt later on a weeklong trip that began in Iraq.
Earlier yesterday, Cheney urged greater support for US policies in Iraq when he held meetings in Abu Dhabi with leaders of the United Arab Emirates.
A senior Bush administration official traveling with Cheney said afterward that the Emirates' president, Sheik Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, pledged to do as much as possible to support the struggling Iraqi government.
Iran also was a major focus of the meeting, according to the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly.
The Emirates' leaders, the official said, were keenly aware of Iran, a large neighbor less than 100 miles away and a $20 billion a year trading partner.
Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was scheduled to visit the Emirates on Sunday, is trying to persuade the Gulf states to drop their military alliances with Washington.
Cheney's mission to Saudi Arabia included an effort to smooth over recent divisions between the kingdom and the United States.
Saudi Arabia has taken an aggressive leadership role in efforts to quiet Mideast troubles. In a possible attempt to gain more credibility in the region, Abdullah recently has challenged the US military presence in Iraq, calling it an "illegal foreign occupation."
The king refused to see Maliki when the Iraqi prime minister toured Arab countries late last month.
Cheney went to Saudi Arabia last November for meetings, requested by the king, that are still shrouded in secrecy.
Reports at the time suggested the two discussed what role Saudi Arabia might play in reaching out to Iraq's Sunni minority as conditions in that country deteriorate.
This time, the king did not request the meeting. Cheney was sent to the region by Bush. Easing Saudi concerns was the main reason for the vice president's trip, US and Arab officials say.
The Saudis have been increasingly concerned with reports that Maliki's government favors Shi'ite officials in government ministries and Shi'ite commanders in the Iraqi military -- at the expense of qualified Sunnis whose inclusion would help foster reconciliation, Arab officials said.
Although top Saudi royals have long-standing ties to the Bush family, the deepening divide over Iraq reflects Saudi disillusionment with the Bush administration, according to Arab officials, even as the two countries reaffirm their strong economic and security ties.
The Central Command's chief, Admiral William Fallon, and State Department Iraq coordinator David Satterfield were both rebuffed in appeals to the king during trips to Riyadh last month.
In testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee earlier this month, Fallon said the king told him "several times" during their April 1 discussion that US policies "had not been correct, in his view."
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