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VP Cheney Embarking on Important Mideast Mission - 2002-03-09

Vice President Dick Cheney leaves Sunday for the Middle East amid escalating conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, and questions about the next target in the U.S. war on terrorism, and if it could be Iraq. The upsurge in violence has forced a sharp change in direction by the Bush administration, which is under pressure from allies to concentrate on the Israel-Palestinian problem.

Mr. Cheney's trip was scheduled long before the latest upsurge in violence between Israel and the Palestinians. It will still focus on the war against terrorism, but has assumed new importance against the background of worsening bloodshed in the Middle East.

Concerned that the current level of violence could grow into all-out Israeli-Palestinian war, President Bush is sending special envoy Anthony Zinni back to the Middle East. But he also sees Mr. Cheney's talks as crucial to gaining regional support for U.S. efforts to end the bloodletting. Mr. Cheney outlined the purposes of his trip shortly after it was announced. "Obviously, one of the subjects I will be discussing with my host are the efforts that General Zinni will undertake and the approach, the Tenet and the Mitchell plans, that the President has outlined here today as well as [Saudi Arabia's] Crown Prince Abdullah's initiative. The peace process is not the only thing on my agenda," he said. "The trip has been planned for some time, and there are a number of other issues that we will talk about, including the continuing war on terrorism."

Secretary of State Colin Powell this past week urged Israeli Prime Minister Sharon to "take a hard look" at his policies of sharp military retaliation for Palestinian terrorist attacks. Appearing with Mr. Cheney at the same White House news conference, Mr. Powell had a message for both the Israelis and Palestinians. "It is a work plan that will allow both sides to get into security consultations so we can get the violence under control, down to zero, start to restore confidence between the two sides, end the killing and then move to a political settlement that is an outcome of the Mitchell process," he said.

President Bush, for his part, said Mr. Arafat needs to do a better job of reigning in Palestinian militants. But he called again on Israel and Palestinians to stop the violence. "It's hard to achieve peace when violence is escalating. And one of the reasons we're sending Zinni back, and one of the reasons I hope the vice president's trip will have a positive effect is because our message, to both sides, is reduce violence," he said. "As I mentioned in my remarks, Chairman Arafat must do everything he can to reduce the violence, to stop the spread of violence. We don't believe he is doing enough."

Asked about criticism that he has not been "reaching out" to Mr. Arafat, Mr. Bush said his administration "speaks with one voice" and has been in sufficient contact with both parties in the conflict.

Over 10 days, Mr. Cheney will visit Britain, an important ally in the anti-terrorism campaign. He will go to Israel, and visit nine Arab nations - Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Yemen and Qatar.

Since the start of the anti-terrorism war following September 11, speculation has been increasing that the United States may target Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. During his trip, Mr. Cheney is likely to encounter resistance to any such plan.

This past week, Turkey warned against what Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit called "an unnecessary war" against Iraq. U.S. and British warplanes use Turkish military bases in southern Turkey to enforce the no-fly zone over Iraq.

Mr. Cheney's Mideast trip takes place after the start of talks in New York between Iraq and U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan to discuss the possible return to Iraq of U.N. weapons inspectors.

Mr. Cheney's first trip to the Middle East as vice president is also the first high-level visit since President Bush's controversial remarks in January naming Iraq, Iran and North Korea as an "axis of evil," countries supporting terrorism and developing weapons of mass destruction.

The vice president has been busy defending the administration against criticism stemming from those remarks, and has also responded to congressional critics who have recently questioned the administration's handling of the war on terrorism.