Cheney to Mideast with "rich agenda" on oil, peace
( Reuter )- Vice President Dick Cheney left on Sunday for the Middle East to raise concerns about high oil prices, push Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, and seek support for Iraq, where war began five years ago this week.
Cheney, who has strong ties with leaders in the Middle East, will visit Oman, Saudi Arabia, Jerusalem, the Palestinian territories, and Turkey during a nine-day trip to the region.
"Clearly, our ongoing efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan will be discussed," John Hannah, national security adviser to Cheney, told reporters. "Middle East peace, Iran, the situation in Syria, Lebanon, the violence in Gaza, energy -- it's a very long list and rich agenda."
Cheney will reinforce the message from visits by President George W. Bush in January and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice earlier this month, in a stepped-up diplomatic push for Israelis and Palestinians to move forward on peace efforts dealt a blow by violence in Gaza and Israel.
"The mood has deteriorated incredibly in the last six weeks since the president was there," Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said.
"From the outside it's very hard to see that Secretary Rice was able to even arrest the slide let alone get things moving forward. My guess is the vice president will be able to arrest the slide if not necessarily put things on track," he said.
In Saudi Arabia, Cheney will discuss energy with King Abdullah as record-high oil prices strain the U.S. economy, but he was not expected to repeat the call by Bush for OPEC to increase production.
"I'm not sure he'll seek anything more than a good and thorough discussion about the current situation in the global energy markets," a senior administration official said.
The United States wants Saudi Arabia, and other Arab allies like Egypt, to set up a diplomatic presence in Iraq by appointing an ambassador and opening an embassy in Baghdad.
"The United States can do a lot for Iraq, but we cannot provide Iraq with an anchor in the Arab world, a kind of legitimacy for the new Iraqi project that comes from being fully integrated in its neighborhood," the U.S. official said.
"And I think clearly some of our friends in the Arab world can do more on that score," he said on condition of anonymity.
But analysts were skeptical that Cheney would make any major breakthroughs.
"I don't think that he's going to be able to bring back anything meaningful because he's got nothing to offer," Steven Simon, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, said.
"He represents a lame duck president, a floundering economy, a situation in which the U.S. for all its efforts in Iraq has no leverage on the government in Baghdad," Simon said.
Cheney throughout his trip will discuss the situation in Iraq, where security has improved, but violence persists five years after the U.S.-led invasion.
Bush will soon receive a new assessment from Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker, that he will weigh in deciding whether any changes to U.S. strategy are needed.
Cheney will tell allies that the United States remains concerned about Iran's nuclear ambitions and would like to see its growing regional influence contained.
"I expect in all of these countries that the challenge we face from Iran will be a very high topic of conversation," the U.S. administration official said.
The message for Turkey, which has been fighting Kurdish rebels known as the PKK in northern Iraq, will be that the United States agrees "the PKK is a terrorist organization that needs to be defeated," and will continue to support Turkey in addressing the problem, the official said.