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The World

Cheney Finds Israeli Issue Trumps Iraq

March 18, 2002|JAMES GERSTENZANG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

DOHA, Qatar — The crown prince of Bahrain gave Vice President Dick Cheney a brief but public lecture Sunday over the U.S. decision to focus on Iraq while the Israeli-Palestinian conflict continues to spiral. Cheney acknowledged the Middle East violence "is a preoccupation for everybody in this part of the world."

The comments by Prince Salman ibn Hamed Khalifa and the vice president's response demonstrated the difficulties Cheney has encountered as he has sought to rivet the Middle East's attention on Iraq and the Bush administration's desire to expand the war on terrorism. The government of Bahrain is rarely at odds with that of the United States.

There was one bright moment in Cheney's day. He visited a secure, undisclosed location in neighboring Qatar--and disclosed it, drawing attention to something that has largely been kept quiet by both nations: that Qatar is letting the U.S. Air Force use a base here.

The move underscores the Qataris' willingness to cooperate publicly with the U.S.

But for most of the day, the vice president was confronted with reminders of the political difficulties and security threats the U.S. faces in the region. First, he had to make a secretive change in aircraft that he was using; then he had to deal with a report on the Arabic Al Jazeera television network that Saudi officials had used the word "confrontational" to describe Cheney's meeting in the city of Jidda on Saturday night with Crown Prince Abdullah, the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia.

Cheney took issue with the characterization of the meeting, saying at a news conference in Bahrain that "the only people in the meeting were the crown prince and myself plus an interpreter, and I have his notes."

He said the meeting was "very good, very productive" and "one of the warmest sessions I've ever had, frankly, in Saudi Arabia."

He announced that Abdullah will visit with President Bush. A White House aide said Bush had given the crown prince an open invitation to visit his ranch in Texas.

Cheney also decried speculation about his work across the region. "I think a lot of it has been uninformed," he said.

White House officials traveling with Cheney would not say whether he was hearing messages in private that suggested an easing of the caution that Arab leaders are expressing in public toward any military action against Iraq, which U.S. officials believe is developing weapons of mass destruction.

The vice president began Sunday in Jidda, flew east to Bahrain and completed the day in this emirate just southeast of Bahrain on the Persian Gulf.

The day produced the most vivid demonstration yet of the gap between the Bush administration and leaders in the region over how hard to push for military action to weaken Iraq's weapons program while the Israeli-Palestinian conflict rages.

Salman, the Bahraini crown prince, said his nation feels as strongly about the Iraqi weapons program as does the United States.

But the prince, who was educated at American University in Washington and spoke comfortably in English, warned: "The people who are dying today, on the streets . . . are [dying] not as a result of any Iraqi action. The people that are dying on the streets today are dying as a result of an Israeli action."

Likewise, he said, Israelis are dying as a result of actions taken by Palestinians.

"So the perception of threat in the Arab world really focuses around that issue, and we are preoccupied by it," he said. "Deeply so."

The importance of reaching a "just settlement" between the Israelis and Palestinians has never been greater, he said, "because it holds up and it precludes and it confuses all the other issues which are of concern to all of us, specifically weapons of mass destruction."

Cheney has said that the violence between Palestinians and Israelis was not dominating a trip originally focused on widening the war against terrorism. But it will be the central issue today when Cheney meets with President Bush's Middle East envoy, retired Marine Corps. Gen. Anthony C. Zinni, as soon as the vice president arrives in Israel. Cheney also will meet with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and possibly with Palestinian leaders.

A senior White House official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Cheney will not engage in negotiations while in Jerusalem.

Underlying the vice president's discussions throughout the region is a skittishness among Arab leaders about appearing too close to the U.S. at a time when many people in their nations believe Washington is waging war on Islam. The leaders fear that a U.S.-led military operation against Iraq would be too destabilizing and cause a welling of sympathy for Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

The United States is seeking support to broaden the war on terrorism beyond Afghanistan, and in particular to turn back what it says is Hussein's program to develop weapons of mass destruction and to maintain his chemical munitions.

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