AFP: US Vice President Dick Cheney met Saudi Arabian leaders on Saturday to seek their help in Iraq, two months after close ally King Abdullah slammed the “illegitimate foreign occupation” there. by Olivier Knox
TABUK, Saudi Arabia, May 12, 2007 (AFP) – US Vice President Dick Cheney met Saudi Arabian leaders on Saturday to seek their help in Iraq, two months after close ally King Abdullah slammed the “illegitimate foreign occupation” there.
Cheney, who flew on Air Force Two from Abu Dhabi to the King Faisal airbase in this northern town, held talks and ate a dinner of lamb, chicken, fish and rice dishes with the Saudi monarch during a nearly six-hour visit.
He was greeted on arrival by Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz, sharing tea at the base before travelling by motorcade to the Fahd bin Sultan palace to meet the king, the route lined by hundreds of waving soldiers and civilians.
Despite the traditional US-Saudi alliance, King Abdullah in March opened an annual Arab summit in Riyadh with a speech denouncing the “illegitimate foreign occupation” of Iraq and warning that “ugly sectarianism threatens civil war.”
Neither Cheney nor the Saudi king spoke to reporters after their talks, but they did pose for several photo opportunities and made small talk, with the ruler asking after former US president George Bush.
“He’s still jumping out of airplanes. I did not want to do it when I was 60. He’s done it twice now,” said the vice president, who served as Bush’s defense minister during the 1991 Gulf War that drove Iraqi forces from Kuwait.
Cheney spokeswoman Lea Anne McBride offered no substantive account of the talks but told reporters that the meeting “served to reaffirm and strengthen old friendships.”
Cheney later headed to Jordan, and was to make an hours-long visit to Egypt for meetings with President Hosni Mubarak and the country’s defense minister before returning to Jordan for talks with King Abdullah II.
The vice president was wrapping up a week-long Middle East visit aimed at encouraging Washington’s allies to help pull Iraq’s minority Sunni Muslims into the country’s fragile political process.
The vice president’s diplomatic mission also aims to win the US allies’ help in curbing the influence of a rising Iran, amid talk that the Islamic republic and Saudi Arabia are in the early skirmishes of a proxy war in Iraq.
Some US officials and analysts worry that sectarian violence there may be fed by support for Iraq’s Sunnis from predominantly Sunni Saudi Arabia and backing for the Shiite majority from majority Shiite Iran.
“I don’t think it’s a proxy war at this stage. That’s not the way I perceive it,” Cheney told Fox News television in an interview on Thursday. “I don’t think that’s the case yet.”
Cheney’s talks in Abu Dhabi came on the eve of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s arrival in the United Arab Emirates on Sunday, in the first visit since Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution by an Iranian head of state to the close US Gulf ally.
A top Cheney aide told reporters that Cheney and UAE leaders had discussed Ahmadinejad’s visit on Saturday, and suggested that Washington bore its Gulf ally no ill will for hosting him.
“They have a very large neighbor, less than a hundred miles away,” the official said on condition he not be named. “President Ahmadinejad was very interested in visiting. The UAE is a very hospitable neighbour.”
“So they’re having him come and they’ll hear what he has to say. I’m sure they’ll have some messages for him as well,” the official said.
The US vice president also hoped to use his considerable influence in Saudi Arabia — forged during the 1991 Gulf War and his oil industry dealings — to smooth over relations badly strained by sectarian violence in Iraq.
King Abdullah refused to meet at the Riyadh summit with Iraq’s Shiite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, and an Arab diplomat said it was because the monarch believed Maliki had deepened the sectarian divide in his country.
The White House sees Saudi Arabia as a cornerstone ally in its campaign to isolate Iran and curtail Tehran’s nuclear programme, which Washington says is a cover for a efforts to build an atomic arsenal. Iran denies the charge.
On Friday, Cheney warned from the hangar deck of a US aircraft carrier in the Gulf that the United States would “stand with others to prevent Iran from gaining nuclear weapons and dominating this region.”
He delivered the warning aboard the nuclear-powered USS John C. Stennis as it cruised about 240 kilometres (150 miles) off Iran.