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Gates and Rice Head to Middle East

Middle East

Gates and Rice Head to Middle East

Hear Alex Chadwick and David Greene

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The White House revealed a large aid package for the Middle East on Monday. The announcement was made hours before Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates left for the region, with an ambitious agenda.

ALEX COHEN, host:

From the studios of NPR West, this is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Cohen.

ALEX CHADWICK.

I'm Alex Chadwick.

Coming up, mission impossible for Admiral Mike Mullen? He's supposed to become the most senior military officer in the country, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. We'll look at his Hollywood upbringing and his ties to Peter Graves, star of TV's "Mission Impossible."

COHEN: But first, today the president's team unveiled a huge aid package for the Middle East. According to initial reports, as much as $20 billion will go to Saudi Arabia; 13 billion is slated to go to Egypt; and for Israel, $30 billion. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made the announcement hours before leaving with Defense Secretary Robert Gates on a rare joint trip to the Middle East.

And as NPR's defense correspondent Guy Raz reports, the two have an ambitious agenda. Iraq is only one part of the discussion.

GUY RAZ: Whenever the president or another administration official speaks out against military withdrawal from Iraq, they often invoke the fear this would cause among the Gulf Arab countries. Here's the president, for example, earlier this month talking about what could happen if the U.S. pulled out of Iraq.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: All these extremist groups would be emboldened by a precipitous American withdrawal, which would confuse and frighten friends and allies in the region.

RAZ: Except one of those friends and allies, the Saudi King Abdullah, didn't seemed to give off that vibe recently at a conference of Arab leaders. You'll hear him speak through a translator.

King ABDULLAH (Saudi Arabia) (Through Translator): In our beloved Iraq, we see the bloodshed among brothers in the light of an illegal foreign occupation.

RAZ: Now that comment...

Mr. PETER RODMAN (Brookings Institution): It was very unhelpful and just mistaken.

RAZ: Unhelpful, says Peter Rodman, because it undermined the administration's message. Up until a few months ago Peter Rodman was the Pentagon's chief liaison to the Saudis. He insists that behind closed doors the Saudis are terrified of an American withdrawal from Iraq. But the Saudi message is certainly a mixed one. Here's Ray Takeyh of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Mr. RAY TAKEYH (Council on Foreign Relations): To us, they say that America - a precipitous American withdrawal particularly would be calamitous. To their domestic audiences they actually are very critical of the United States and have often called for a withdrawal of American forces. So the question is, will the real Saudis please stand up.

RAZ: This is the question the two secretaries, Gates and Rice, hope to answer in the coming weeks. A senior Pentagon official who couldn't be quoted on the record says the Saudis are, quote, "hedging their bets," assuming an American withdrawal from Iraq is imminent. As a result, the official says, the Saudis have started to look around for their own clients among Iraq's Sunni community. Many of those Sunni leaders are actively undermining the Shiite-dominated and U.S.-backed central government in Iraq, the official adds.

Here's Gregory Gause, who studies Persian Gulf politics at the University of Vermont.

Professor GREGORY GAUSE (Political Science, University of Vermont): Right now we've got a lot of problems in Iraq. Having the Saudis encouraging Sunni groups not to cooperate with the government, to contest for power, just adds to those problems.

RAZ: According to a senior Pentagon official, 40 percent of all foreign fighters operating in Iraq today are Saudi nationals. The Saudis and other Gulf Arab states regard the Shiite-dominated government in Iraq as nothing more than a client of Iran. Meanwhile, public opinion in these countries isn't much bothered about Iran; the governing elite is.

In the 1980s, Iran pursued policies that destabilized countries like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain. All of these countries are ruled by Sunni Muslims, yet they have sizable Shiite Muslim populations. And Shiites in these countries have long sought greater equality. And so Iran in the past figured out how to quietly provoke these Shiites living under Sunni rule. In the past, Iraq's Sunni-dominated government held Iran in check. But Ray Takeyh says with Iran now gaining influence in Iraq...

Mr. TAKEYH: The balance of power is gone. And the reliability of the United States is in question. And the popularity of the United States in the Gulf is non-existent.

GAZ: And so Peter Rodman says both secretaries will be trying to convince the Saudis that the United States is reliable.

Mr. RODMAN: What is important is that we assure our friends that we're staying in the region, we're not being driven out, we're not going to be defeated, that this president has staying power. And I think that is what all our friends in the region are hoping to hear.

RAZ: It's a message that has to succeed, says one Pentagon official. Without the Saudis on board, the official says, our whole strategy in Iraq is unwinnable.

Guy Raz, NPR News, Washington.

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Arms Sales in Gulf Will Counter Terrorism, Rice Says

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice/Getty.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will embark Monday on a four-day tour of the Gulf region with Defense Secretary Robert Gates. Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

The Bush administration said Monday a $20 billion military sales package to Arab countries will promote stability in a Middle East threatened by terrorism and Iran's weapons ambitions.

Embarking on a four-day tour of the region with Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the proposed U.S. package, "will help bolster forces of moderation and support a broader strategy to counter the negative influences of al-Qaida, Hezbollah, Syria, and Iran."

The White House hopes the package will secure Iraq and the Persian Gulf as well as driving out terrorism.

"We are helping to strengthen the defensive capabilities of our partners," Rice said in a statement. "We plan to initiate discussions with Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states on a proposed package of military technologies that will help support their ability to secure peace and stability in the Gulf region."

The new sales to Arab countries, notably Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, will be balanced with a more than 25 percent increase in military aid to Israel over the next 10 years. This will enable the Jewish state to keep its qualitative military edge over neighbors with which it has no peace deal.

Israel will receive a total of $30 billion in U.S. military assistance while Egypt, which along with Jordan has made peace with Israel, will get $13 billion as part of the broader package.

Specific figures for Saudi Arabia and Gulf nations like Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, will be determined in the coming weeks, according to according to Under Secretary of State Nicholas Burns, Washington's third-highest ranking diplomat, who will travel to the region in mid-August for follow-up talks.

Any sales will have to be approved by Congress, where some lawmakers have expressed deep concerns about their impact on the region and Israel.

Administration officials have said they would be pursuing such sale even if Iran were not perceived by its neighbors as a significant threat.

"The Iran element is one factor, it's not the overriding factor in why we're doing this," Burns said.

But, at the same time, he put the possible threat from Iran in stark terms.

Across the region, "there is a high degree of concern about Iran's quest to become a nuclear weapons power but also about fact that as you know Iran has armed and funded most of the Middle East terrorist groups," Burns said.

The intended military sales were announced as Washington renews appeals for countries in the region to support its efforts in Iraq and the Iraqi government. Burns denied that the proposed packages were meant to buy backing for Iraq.

"There are no formal quid pro quos in this, but it figures that we would want our friends to be supportive of Iraq," he said.

From The Associated Press.

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