Rice, Gates in Egypt to seek Arab front against Iran (video)

( AFP ) - US President George W. Bush's defense chief and top diplomat were due in Egypt Tuesday, to start a brief tour aimed at uniting Arab allies against the influence of Iran and other US foes.

They want to encourage their allies to help stabilise Iraq.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates' rare trip together comes after Washington on Monday announced a multi-billion-dollar military aid bonanza for "moderate" Arab states.

The United States revealed new military pacts worth 20 billion dollars (14.6 billion euros) for Saudi Arabia, 13 billion dollars for Egypt and 30 billion for Israel in a bid to counter Iran.

Talking to reporters travelling with her to Egypt, Rice dismissed Iran's charges that the arms package would create fear and dampen relations between countries in the Middle East.

"I think if there is a destabilisation of the region, that can be laid at the feet of an Iranian regime that is engaging in the kind of activities that I just outlined," she said.

Earlier, she accused Iran of fuelling terrorism in Lebanon; backing and providing technologies to Shiite militias in Iraq; aiding Hamas in the Palestinian territories; and harbouring ambitions of acquiring nuclear weapons.

The package was to "help bolster forces of moderation and support a broader strategy to counter the negative influences of Al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, Syria, and Iran," Rice said.

Gates, travelling on a separate plane, said the fact that both he and Rice were headed to the Middle East was significant.

It showed "the importance we attach to reassuring our friends out here of our staying power," he told reporters travelling with him.

"One of the areas we will be exploring is whether there is interest in pursuing a dialogue on ways to further strengthen bilateral security relationships and perhaps explore new opportunities in that arena."

Rice and Burns are to meet top diplomats from Gulf allies who will also be given military aid reportedly worth at least 20 billion dollars, although the United States says the precise figure is still undecided.

Reports have cited potential arms deals with the Saudis and five other Gulf states -- the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman.

Egypt and Jordan -- whose foreign ministers last week visited Israel to push an Arab League peace plan -- will be joining the talks with foreign ministers from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates.

US Under Secretary of State Nicholas Burns said Monday that while there was no formal "quid pro quo" for the arms packages, Washington did expect allies to back its role in Iraq and the fragile Iraqi government.

Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini said: "The United States has always had a special policy of spreading fear in the region and tarnishing existing good relations" between countries in the Middle East."

And GCC member Oman said Sunday that Iran did not pose a threat to the Gulf region.

" Iran is a neighbouring state and we have a common interest, which is to maintain stability and security in the region," said Yussef bin Alawi bin Abdullah, the Omani minister responsible for foreign affairs.

Bush says Iran is racing to develop nuclear weapons, something that Tehran denies, insisting its nuclear programme is peaceful.

Washington is also concerned its most powerful Sunni Arab ally, Saudi Arabia, is bankrolling Sunni militants, allowing them to stoke the insurgency in Iraq.

But a senior State Department official said US allies in the Gulf did not trust Washington and were unlikely to commit to any course of action.

"Our credibility is in tatters," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "That doesn't mean they are not concerned about Iran. It just means they just don't know what we are going to do."

Gates and Rice will head to Saudi Arabia before making separate trips in the region.

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