Tuesday, July 31, 2007

SHARM EL-SHEIK, Egypt (AP) — President Bush’s top national security aides said today their double-barreled show of diplomatic and military support for friendly Arab allies this week is not a shot across Iran’s bow.

“We are out here to talk about the long term,” Defense Secretary Robert Gates said, as he and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice began two days of meetings among Persian Gulf allies and Egypt. Gates noted that U.S. relationships in the Gulf and beyond predate the current unease over Iran’s ambitions and influence.

If Iran perceives the joint visit and U.S. overtures differently, “that’s in the eye of the beholder,” Gates said.

The Cabinet secretaries also said during a joint press conference in this Red Sea resort that they heard worries from Arab allies about the future of the U.S. military presence in Iraq.

“Clearly there is concern…that the United States will somehow withdraw precipitously from Iraq, or in some way that is destabilizing to the entire region,” Gates said.

He pledged “understanding that this needs to be done carefully and not leave Iraq in chaos,” before jetting off with Rice to hold meetings later in the day in Saudi Arabia.

The United States won no specific new promises of Arab help for struggling Iraq today, but Rice said she heard the right expressions of support after a gathering of several nations listed as recipients of an expanded aid and weapons package for friendly states in the region.

Iraq’s Arab neighbors repeated a general pledge to promote stability in Iraq, torn by more than four years of war and bitter sectarian divisions that have killed thousands and driven far more from their homes.

“I think we know what the obligations of the neighbors are,” Rice said, adding that Egypt and other U.S. allies are working to meet past promises of relief of Iraq’s heavy international debt, additional foreign aid and help tamping down violence inside Iraq.

Rice and Gates were making a rare joint show of diplomatic force during two days of meetings with Arab allies part of an 11th-hour effort to rally diplomatic and practical help for the U.S.-backed Shiite-led government in Baghdad. The tour also opens talks on a proposed U.S. arms package for Arab states worth more than $20 billion.

But at a press conference with her Egyptian host, Rice pointed to no fresh commitments from the Arabs. A statement issued following a nine-nation meeting promised only “to continue to support Iraq and expand their financial and political support,” and restated a general commitment to blocking would-be terrorists and financing that supports them from entering Iraq.

“The … commitment was always to help a united Iraq to reach that point of full stability, and that we have been trying to do over the last four years,” Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said following the joint meeting.

Bush’s top diplomatic and military managers have a tough assignment to convince skeptical, mostly Sunni-led Arab nations that they have more to lose if Iraq fails than they stand to gain by waiting until the U.S. leaves or Bush’s term ends.

“We have also been calling for the noninterference of any foreign powers into Iraq,” Aboul Gheit said. “That is something we would renew.”

Unity against Iran is not a hard sell. But Washington has had far less success in rallying Arab help for Iraq that goes much beyond words.

Arab money and diplomatic support has lagged behind Europe’s, and some of Iraq’s neighbors quietly tolerate, or may secretly support, attacks inside Iraq. Some of the violence targets U.S. forces and some of it Shiite militias and neighborhoods.

For their part, Arab countries may be worried that escalating opposition in the U.S. to the war in Iraq may signal a declining commitment to security in the region.

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