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Bush Heads to Gulf States on Second Half of Mideast Tour

After talks in Jerusalem and on the West Bank, President Bush is getting ready to embark on the second half of his Middle East tour. VOA White House Correspondent Paula Wolfson reports he is heading to five Arab states to encourage support for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and urge unity on Iran.

The president's trip next takes him to Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt. He calls them five key U.S. allies in the Arab world.

"I will thank the leaders of these countries for their friendship. I will urge them to strongly support negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians," he said. "I will discuss the importance of countering the aggressive ambitions of Iran. And I will assure them that America's commitment to the security of our friends in the region is strong and enduring."

It is an ambitious agenda, and the president will have only six days to try to build support in these countries.

Regional experts expect no breakthroughs. But most, like Jon Alterman of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, say it is important for the president to reach out to these Arab leaders. Alterman says that is certainly the case when it comes to the president's effort to forge a strong international stand on Iran.

"The Gulf states can seriously undermine U.S. efforts to isolate Iran. The Gulf's inclination is to try to engage with Iran. I think there is a strong sense in the Gulf states that the conservatives are in the process of beating back the radicals [in Iran], and this is a process that takes time," said Alterman.

There is also concern in the Gulf about a recent U.S. intelligence report that says Iran had a secret nuclear weapons program but ended it in 2003. President Bush has said he will stress in his talks that Iran could resume that program at any time and remains a threat.

He is also expected to urge Arab governments to give their people greater freedoms and encourage more openness.

White House National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley says that will be the focus of the only speech of the trip - an address this Sunday in Abu Dhabi.

"He will talk about the progress we have seen in the Gulf, the progress of the freedom agenda in the region, emerging economic progress, and how regional security is important for both continued economic growth and the spread of freedom," said Hadley.

Jon Alterman says the message is important.

"I think one of the positive things in the UAE that the president will point to is this sense of openness to engagement with the world. And part of the president's concern about the Middle East is the sense that this is a place that is deeply xenophobic [fears foreigners]," continued Alterman. "But one of the positive messages out of the UAE is here is a place with both Abu Dhabi and Dubai that has not been xenophobic, which seems to be a place that fosters moderation."

The president will take time out from his meetings with Arab leaders to visit American soldiers and sailors at an army base in Kuwait, and a U.S. naval center in Bahrain. He will be joined in Kuwait by the top U.S. commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, and the senior American diplomat in Baghdad, Ambassador Ryan Crocker for a review of the situation in Iraq.