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Skepticism, Anger Greet Bush in Middle East


U.S. President George Bush is headed to the Middle East for a nine-day visit to press the peace process and to try to convince his Arab allies that Iran remains a threat to regional security. But the U.S. leader will be greeted by widespread skepticism in the Arab world, where public opinion polls show he remains unpopular. VOA Middle East Correspondent Challiss McDonough has more from Cairo.

President Bush's visit to the Middle East comes amid waves of criticism and rancor from the Arab press. Newspaper columnists note the push for Middle East peace has not begun until the final year of the president's two terms in office.

Mr. Bush remains one of the least popular world leaders in Arab opinion polls, and is held personally responsible by many in the region for the destabilizing chaos in Iraq. In his tour of the region, he will have to overcome widespread skepticism about his new push toward an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.

Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa acknowledged this when he spoke to reporters on Sunday, saying everyone - including himself - has lots of suspicions and doubts.

Moussa said that the United States should bear its responsibilities if it wants to change the situation and the general feeling in the Middle East.

But he also said it is necessary to open diplomatic doors, rather than close them.

He added that it is an important visit and comes at a critical time.

He notes that Mr. Bush hopes to reach a Middle East peace deal by the end of this year, and has promised to take a comprehensive approach to the peace process.

Analyst Hassan Abu Taleb, of the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo, agrees with many others that confidence-building is a significant hurdle for President Bush.

He says the Arab world wants the American president to express his personal commitment to his vision regarding the establishment of two states, Palestinian and Israeli, as well as his personal concern with overcoming obstacles facing the negotiations.

In addition to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, Iran remains high on the president's agenda as he tours the region. Iran's relations with the Gulf states and Egypt have been warming in recent months. Mr. Bush has made it clear that he intends to tell his Arab allies that he still views Iran as a threat.

Mr. Bush's first stop will be Israel, but he is also due to visit Bahrain, headquarters of the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet, just days after a Persian Gulf confrontation involving three U.S. warships and five speedboats from Iran's Republican Guard.

President Bush is coming to the Middle East amid rising tensions on a number of other fronts, as well.

Two incidents early Tuesday underlined the fragile security situation in Lebanon. Israel said two rockets fired from south Lebanon slammed into northern Israel, and two U.N. peacekeepers in south Lebanon were wounded when a roadside bomb exploded near their vehicle.

A Lebanese political crisis has left the country without a president for more than six weeks. The standoff between the Lebanese opposition and ruling coalition is seen in part as a proxy for the regional battle for influence between the United States and Europe on the one hand, and Syria and Iran on the other.

Relations between Israel and Egypt are at a low ebb, 30 years after the signing of the historic peace accord between the two countries.

Israeli authorities have repeatedly accused Egypt of failing to adequately police the border between Egypt and the Gaza Strip. Egypt says the allegations are untrue, and accuses Israel in turn of trying to sabotage Cairo's relationship with Washington.

After leaving Jerusalem on Friday, the president will visit Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. He returns to Washington on January 17.

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