Gates, Rice Meet with Arab Leaders in Egypt

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice were in Egypt on Tuesday to meet with Arab leaders at the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheik.

The pair are hoping to bolster support for the fledgling Iraqi government and to step up pressure on Iran to curb its nuclear ambitions.

Hours before Rice and Gates embarked on their diplomatic mission, the White House on Monday proposed a U.S. arms package to Arab nations worth more than $20 billion. The sophisticated weaponry, according to U.S. officials, would strengthen relatively moderate Persian Gulf governments against extremist influences such as Iran.

Rice said the arms deal, along with an aid package for Israel and Egypt, represented the fruit of years of partnership and a recognition of the region's strategic importance.

"We have the same goals in this region concerning security and stability," Rice said. "There isn't a doubt, I think, that Iran constitutes the single most important, single-country challenge to ... U.S. interests in the Middle East and to the kind of Middle East that we want to see."

Gates said key goals for the trip included reaffirming that the strong U.S. military presence in the region will continue. Although a buildup in American forces has raised the number of troops in Iraq to nearly 160,000, pressure is mounting in the U.S. for a troop withdrawal.

U.S. officials want "to reassure all of the countries that the policies that the president pursues in Iraq have had and will continue to have regional stability and security as a very high priority," Gates said.

Congress must approve the arms deal. Rep. Tom Lantos, the California Democrat who heads the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said Monday that the weapons should be defensive in nature. He added that other nations would step in to sell arms in the region if the U.S. did not.

Specific figures for Saudi Arabia and Gulf nations Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates were not final and would be settled in the coming weeks, the State Department said.

The new sales to Arab countries will be balanced with a more than 25 percent increase in military aid to Israel over the next 10 years so it can hold its military edge over neighbors with which it has no peace deal.

From NPR reports and The Associated Press

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