Bush to push democracy with Arab allies

President Bush is praising small democratic advances in Gulf nations ruled by authoritarian family dynasties, while reassuring the oil-rich U.S. allies that he does not seek confrontation with Iran in their backyard.

Midway through an eight-day Mideast trip showcasing a renewed push for an Israeli-Palestinian peace pact, Bush landed on Sunday in the United Arab Emirates where he was to deliver a speech, gently prodding the slowly liberalizing Arab states. His address, reprising his call for democracy in the Middle East and other places where it is scarce, was planned at an opulent, gold-trimmed hotel here where a suite goes for $2,450 a night.

"He will talk about how democracy and advancing freedom is the core of our country's foreign policy, and that he believes it is in our interest to have security through democracies," White House press secretary Dana Perino said.

Perino said Bush's speech will make the point that "in a free society, elections are important, but they're not the only thing that's important." She said the speech will note the contributions of universities and other institutions to a free society.

On Iran, Bush was to offer security assurances to Persian Gulf allies nervous about Iran's military might and spreading influence. Gulf allies are jittery after in Jan. 6 confrontation between U.S. and Iranian naval vessels off their shores, but seek assurance that Bush doesn't want war. Any attack on Iran could bring retaliation against military bases on Arab soil or choke the lucrative oil trade through the Strait of Hormuz.

Shortly after landing during a steady rain on the southeastern tip of the Arabian Peninsula, Bush met at a ceremonial palace with Sheik Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan, who was appointed president of the United Arab Emirates in 2004 following the death of his father, Sheik Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan. The UAE president presented Bush with a ceremonial sash that looked like a thick golden necklace about two feet long. A portrait of the late president hung on the wall behind them.

Earlier Sunday in Bahrain, U.S. Vice Adm. Kevin Cosgriff, commander of the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet, which patrols the Gulf, told Bush that he took it "deadly seriously" when an Iranian fleet of high-speed boats charged at and threatened to blow up a three-ship U.S. Navy convoy passing near Iranian waters. The Iranian naval forces vanished as the American ship commanders were preparing to open fire.

Bush spoke with Cosgriff after he had a breakfast of pancakes and bacon with troops of the U.S. 5th Fleet based in Bahrain.

"The media may be free to second-guess the military decision, but his (Bush's) captains are not and they take it very seriously," Perino told reporters aboard Air Force One en route to the United Arab Emirates. "They have deliberate and measured ways to engage other traffic there in the Strait of Hormuz, which they did. But all the military people remember what happened in the past, such as the USS. Cole ... The vice admiral said they take it deadly seriously."

Seventeen sailors were killed in a terrorist attack on the USS Cole in Yemen in October 2000.

The right response to a rising Iran has been a consistent theme through Bush's travels in the Mideast, beginning with the distress of close ally Israel at the recent U.S. intelligence assessment downgrading the near-term threat of nuclear weapons in Iran. Israel regards Iran as its No. 1 enemy.

In visits over three days in Kuwait, Bahrain and Abu Dhabi, Bush also was urging continued and visible Arab support for fragile peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. Arab backing, and probably funding, is considered essential to make any agreement stick.

He has played up democratic advances such as suffrage for women in Kuwait, granted in 2005, or the election of a woman member of parliament in Bahrain in 2006. He has avoided any public scolding of his hosts. Bush opened a meeting with women activists in Kuwait on Saturday by thanking the country's leader and noting that Sheik Sabah Al Ahmed Al Sabah had told him he has no regrets about giving women the vote.

A State Department report last year said that Kuwaitis have no right to change their government or to form political parties, are mistreated in custody and have limited rights of free speech and religion. The report, the most recent, covered 2006.

The same human rights report said Bahrain restricts freedoms of press, speech, assembly, association, and some religious practices. Last month the Bahrain Center for Human Rights said authorities were holding 39 people picked up in police raids following a week of anti-government demonstrations.

And in the UAE, the State Department report found what it called significant human rights problems including: no citizens' right to change the government and no popularly elected representatives of any kind; flogging as judicially sanctioned punishment; arbitrary detention and incommunicado detention, restrictions on freedom of speech and the press.

Arab eyes rolled three years ago when Bush announced a "freedom agenda," a policy to seed democracy and measure even close friends by their performance.

"We will persistently clarify the choice before every ruler and every nation: The moral choice between oppression, which is always wrong, and freedom, which is eternally right," Bush said in his second inaugural address in 2005.

" America will not pretend that jailed dissidents prefer their chains, or that women welcome humiliation and servitude, or that any human being aspires to live at the mercy of bullies. We will encourage reform in other governments by making clear that success in our relations will require the decent treatment of their own people."

The policy has been selectively enforced, and has had unintended consequences where applied. For example, Palestinian Hamas militants won a free election two years ago that set back peace efforts. U.S. officials say they do not regret supporting the election. ( AP )

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