Rice, Gates in Egypt to persuade Arabs
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates arrived in Egypt on Tuesday with promises of weapons for allies in the Middle East, saying it would help counter Al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, Syria and Iran.
Rice and Gates, who are also due to visit Saudi Arabia, planned to urge their Arab friends to do more to help the United States over Iraq but dismissed suggestions arms worth tens of billions of dollars were a quid pro quo to get that assistance.
The military aid package on offer to Egypt is $13 billion over 10 years, the same level as for at least the last six years. But Washington is offering Israel an increase of about 25 per cent -- to $30 billion over the next 10 years.
"This is not an issue of quid pro quo. We are working with these states to fight back extremism," said Rice, who spoke to reporters en route and before leaving Washington.
"We all have the same interest in a stable Iraq that can defend itself ... and be unified," she added.
The United States has repeatedly sought Arab help with Iraq although its Arab allies have little or no say there. Saudi Arabia has some weight with Sunni Arab tribal leaders.
Privately, Bush administration officials are increasingly frustrated at Saudi Arabia's attitude towards the Iraqi government, dominated by Shi'ite Muslims linked with Iran, but Rice sought to play down that criticism.
She praised Saudi Arabia for offering debt relief to Baghdad and for attempting to better secure its border with Iraq.
The US military package includes weapons for Saudi Arabia and the other conservative Gulf countries but the US officials have not said whether this would be mostly sales. Saudi Arabia usually pays for its US weapons.
Rice said: "This effort will help bolster forces of moderation and support a broader strategy to counter the negative influences of Al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, Syria and Iran."
Iran has criticized the promise of arms, accusing the United States of trying to create fear and mistrust in the Middle East and of aiming to destabilize the region.
"If there is a destabilization of the region it can be laid at the feet of an Iranian regime," said Rice. "This is a positive agenda in the Middle East."
US President George W. Bush's administration says the Rice-Gates mission is meant to send a signal to long-standing US allies that Washington remains committed to the region despite its problems in Iraq and the growing strength of Iran.
Underlining the importance the Republican administration attached to the mission, Gates said: "For the secretary of state and the secretary of defense to travel together to any region ... is at a minimum very rare if not unprecedented."
In the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh on Tuesday, Rice and Gates will meet the foreign ministers of Egypt, Jordan and the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council.
The Arab ministers flew in from an Arab League meeting in Cairo on Monday, at which they gave qualified support to Bush's idea of a Middle East peace meeting later this year.
Syria objected, saying that to support the US proposal under present conditions would betray the Palestinian cause.
The ministers said the conference must include all parties concerned, must aim to revive negotiations between Israel and all its neighbors and must be built on previous peace talks.
The Arab conditions would thwart any U.S. or Israeli attempts to exclude Syria or renegotiate elements agreed in outline in Syrian-Israeli talks which broke down in 2000.
The ministers will be pressing Rice for more details, such as who will attend, what the agenda will be and how hard the United States will work for a comprehensive peace.
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