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Rice, Gates Discuss Iraq with Saudi Leadership

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates discussed Iraq and other Middle East issues late Tuesday with Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah and other top Saudi officials in Jeddah. Gates says the Bush administration will take regional stability into account in any decision it makes on the future of the U.S. troop presence in Iraq. VOA's David Gollust reports from Jeddah.

Rice and Gates have cast their unusual joint Middle east trip as a reassurance mission, in the face of a more aggressive Iranian posture in the region and what they say is widespread apprehension among Arab allies that the United States might make a hasty withdrawal from Iraq, leaving behind more chaos.

At a press event with Rice capping talks in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh with ministers from Egypt, Jordan and the six Gulf Cooperation Council member states, Gates acknowledged Arab concern about Iraq and promised it will figure in administration decision-making:

"I think there is clearly concern on the part of the Egyptians and I think it probably represents concerns elsewhere in the region that the United States will somehow withdraw precipitously from Iraq, or in some way that is destabilizing to the entire region," he said. "And so there were no prescriptions, only the expression of concern. But as we look at the path ahead, that we take into account those concerns, and in turn we assured them that the President is going to bear very much in mind what he thinks is in the interest of long-term stability in the region in terms of decisions he makes with respect to what happens next in Iraq in terms of U.S. troops."

Gates did not minimize the discontent in the U.S. Congress over the Iraq war, but he said even among war opponents, there is a "growing body of opinion" that any move on the future of the troop presence needs to be done with great thought and care:

"It seems to me over the past two or three weeks or so in Washington that while there are still strong advocates, clearly of withdrawal, and some of them withdrawing very quickly, what I have begun to hear is more and more of an undertone, even from those who oppose the President's policies, of the need to take account of the consequences if we make a change in our policy, and the dangers inherent in doing it unwisely," he added.

The visit here by the Bush cabinet members comes at a sensitive point in U.S.-Saudi relations following rare frontal criticism of Saudi policy on Iraq from U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Zalmay Khalilzad.

The former U.S. envoy to Baghdad told television interviewers Sunday that Saudi Arabia and a number of other Arab countries are not doing all they can to help the United States in Iraq, and in some cases are undermining efforts to make progress.

In the press event that immediately preceded her arrival in Saudi Arabia, Rice softened the comments and said the issues cited by Khalilzad cannot be compared to negative activities on Iraq by countries like Syria and Iran:

"I think what Ambassador Khalilzad said was that there are neighbors of Iraq who could do more, effectively than they are doing, and by not doing that they are not being helpful," she said. "Look, all of Iraq's neighbors could do more to stabilize Iraq. My point yesterday was that if you compare what you're seeing in terms of Syrian people coming through Damascus airport, many of whom can't cross borders at other points including in Saudi Arabia, then you have a marked contrast in what governments are trying to do to stem the flow of foreign fighters."

Rice and Gates part company Wednesday, with the Defense Secretary continuing talks in the Gulf region and Rice heading to Jerusalem for a set of meetings with Israeli officials, including Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, and capping the Middle East trip Thursday with talks in Ramallah with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Rice is working on plans for an international meeting she will host this autumn aimed at restoring momentum to Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts.