WASHINGTON (AFP) – US Vice President Dick Cheney leaves for the Middle East Sunday, hoping to help revive the battered peace process and get Arab allies like Saudi Arabia to do more to curb Iran’s influence in Iraq.
With just ten months left in US President George W. Bush’s term, Cheney is expected to seek support for confronting Tehran over its nuclear program and push Israel and the Palestinians to fulfill past promises for peace.
His 10-day trip comes as the US presidential race is heating up and the world prepares to mark the fifth anniversary of the US-led invasion of Iraq, which falls March 19 in Washington and March 20 in Baghdad.
The political unrest in Lebanon, the situation in Syria, the violence in Gaza, and sky-high oil prices will all come up as Cheney visits Oman, Saudi Arabia, Israel, the West Bank, and Turkey, top aide John Hannah said Friday.
“It’s a very long list and rich agenda,” said Hannah, the vice president’s national security adviser. “He has quite deep relationships, and personal relationships, with a number of leaders in those countries.”
Cheney was not expected to press Saudi King Abdullah too much to boost oil output, or push OPEC to do so, in the face of sky-high oil prices that have fueled a bitter debate ahead of the November 4 US elections.
“I’m not sure he’ll seek anything more than a good and thorough discussion about the current situation in the global energy markets,” a senior US official told reporters in a pre-trip briefing held on condition he not be named.
Instead, the US vice president will push that staunch US ally to step up formal ties with the fledgling government in Iraq, a step the unnamed US official directly tied to efforts to contain regional powerhouse Iran.
Pointing to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s recent visit to Baghdad, the official noted “there’s not a lot of competition; there’s not a lot of other players in the region at a high level making the trek to Baghdad.”
“The United States can do a lot for Iraq, but we cannot provide Iraq with an anchor in the Arab world, a kind of legitimacy for the new Iraqi project that comes from being fully integrated in its neighborhood,” the official said.
But Cheney won’t ask the king to go himself, the official said: “The bar is not that high. It would be great to get a resident Saudi ambassador, a resident Egyptian ambassador” and key Arab ministers to make formal visits.
The vice president is due to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and other top officials and, separately, Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad to push both sides on the peace talks the two sides agreed to restart at a November conference in Annapolis, Maryland.
“He’s going basically as a good soldier in terms of the Annapolis process. it’s just part of his responsibility. It also puts less prestige on the line than if the president went, though the president is going back in May,” said Washington’s former UN ambassador, John Bolton.
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, whose recent visit led both sides to resume talks despite Israeli raids on Gaza in response to rocket attacks, is expected to return in April as part of an all-out US effort to secure a deal before Bush leaves office in January 2009.
Cheney will tell the two sides that they must follow-through on their obligations under the diplomatic “road-map” to peace and that “there are risks and compromises here that are really worth taking,” the unnamed official said.
But a day before the US vice president was to begin his tour, an Israeli air strike killed three Islamic Jihad militants readying to fire rockets from Gaza in an escalation of violence that could complicate Cheney’s mission.
In Turkey, much of the talks will focus on that US NATO ally’s incursion into northern Iraq to crush separatist rebels of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), and promise continued US and Iraqi help against what much of the world deems a terrorist group, the official told reporters.
In Oman, Cheney will thank leaders for their “quiet but robust” help in the war on terrorism and promise that Washington is not pulling back pressure on Tehran over an atomic drive the West suspects is part of a nuclear weapons quest.