Top U.S. guns to leave on critical Middle East mission

July 30, 2007 - 0:0

WASHINGTON (AFP) -- Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates leave today on a vital Middle East mission to seek Arab support to bolster Iraq and to discuss weapons sales with allies.

Rice and Gates will make rare joint visits to Egypt and Saudi Arabia before separate trips to other parts of the region. In Egypt, they are scheduled to meet ministers of the Persian Gulf Cooperation Council countries -- Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman -- as well as Jordan and Egypt in the Red Sea resort of Sharm El Sheikh. They will ""discuss the ways in which Iraq's neighbors can help advance the cause of security and stability in that country,"" State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said. Washington is particularly concerned that its most powerful Sunni Arab ally, Saudi Arabia, is bankrolling Sunni militants and serving as a conduit for them to stoke the insurgency in Iraq. Rice and Gates ""are going to be talking to the Saudis as well as others about what they might do"" in supporting the Iraqi Government, not only on the security front but also diplomatically and financially, McCormack said. Their ""historical differences and tensions are going to need to be overcome,"" he said. But in a bid to soothe concerns of the pro-Western Sunni nations worried about Shiite, Washington is expected to discuss military aid packages and arms sales with them. Ahead of the Rice-Gates trip, the Bush administration will announce today a series of arms deals worth at least 20 billion dollars with Saudi Arabia and the five other Persian Gulf states, U.S. media reported. Also to be unveiled are military assistance agreements providing $30 billion in new U.S. aid to Israel and $13 billion to Egypt over 10 years, the reports said. The arms deals, which include the sales of a variety of sophisticated weaponry, would be the largest negotiated by the administration of President George W. Bush, according to the Washington Post. U.S. allies in the Persian Gulf are ""very concerned about what our commitment and the possibility of withdrawal from Iraq means for the region,"" a Pentagon official said. Gates will reassure them that ""regardless of what happens in the near term in Iraq, that our commitment in the region remains firm, remains steadfast and that in fact we are looking to enhance and develop it."" Rice will travel separately to Jerusalem and Ramallah for meetings with Israeli and Palestinian officials. Without singling out Saudi Arabia, Rice said she hoped other Arab states would take advantage of ""this opening to develop an Israel-Arab track to go alongside and to support the Israeli-Palestinian track."" The peace plan offers Israel normalization of ties with Arab nations in exchange for full withdrawal from Arab land occupied since 1967, the creation of a Palestinian state and a return of refugees. The trip will also allow Rice to prepare for international Middle East peace talks, which President George W. Bush announced would be held this fall. Washington is especially keen on having Saudi Arabia attend the meeting, which seeks to bring together Israel, the Palestinians and their neighbors with Rice. During her trip, Rice said she wanted to talk to allies in the region about ""how they see and what they would see to be a useful international meeting. ""The United States doesn't want made-in-America solutions. We need the entire population of states that are devoted to the two-state solution to work with us,"" she said. ""And so these will be very important consultations.