Egypt's President Offers U.S. Help on Mideast Deal

President Bush, wrapping up a visit to the Middle East to promote peace in the region, got a boost Wednesday on his last stop in Egypt. Top Arab ally President Hosni Mubarak said he would work closely with the U.S. on a deal to create a Palestinian state.

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President Bush made a brief stop today in Egypt, his last on a weeklong tour of the Middle East. He promised to return and said that he would stay committed to the Arab-Israeli peace process.

NPR's Michele Kelemen has been travelling with the president and she filed this report about the past week's events - a mixture of pump and policy.

MICHELE KELEMEN: Egypt has historically been a key player in the Middle East peace process, so when Mr. Bush sat down with President Hosni Mubarak on a glorious day in the Red Sea resort of Sharm El Sheikh, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict dominated the agenda.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: I'm optimistic an agreement can be reached. And the reason I am is because I believe the leadership in Israel and the leadership of the Palestinians is committed to a two-state solution. And I know nations in the neighborhood are willing to help.

KELEMEN: He spent eight days in the neighborhood trying to get Arab states to reach out to Israel and to help Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas. President Bush was also in Gulf states talking about the high price of oil and the threats emanating from Iran. But mainly, this was a trip about shoring up alliances. He spent more time than usual touring cultural sites, sitting down for tea and lavished dinners with kings and sheikhs. He stayed at King Abdullah's ranch in Saudi Arabia and checked out the king's price-winning horses.

Pres. BUSH: He's looking at you, your majesty, it's as if he's paying attention to you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KELEMEN: The rulers in the United Arab Emirates showed off their hunting falcons and the president seemed to have fun taking it all in.

(Soundbite of children singing)

KELEMEN: On his stop in Dubai, the president even tried out a word of Arabic, saying shukran, or thank you, to the young girls who serenaded him in flowing pink and blue robes. He repeated his calls for reforms in the Middle East, but was fairly soft, at least in public, on Egypt and Saudi Arabia. He also seemed quite taken by the oil-driven building booms in Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates.

Pres. Bush: We're here working to embrace the opportunities for a modern, global economy. And doing - and in doing so, are not abandoning the traditions of the cultures or their faith.

KELEMEN: In many ways, it felt like a trip that should have been made much earlier in Mr. Bush's presidency, before the Iraq war made him so unpopular here, and we he had more time to help solve a central issue on the minds of many in the region - the Arab-Israeli conflict. He said he had to explain to leaders on this trip why he's so optimistic at this point.

Pres. BUSH: It's a wonder whether or not the American president - when he says something, whether he actually means it. When I say I'm coming back to stay engaged, I mean it. And when I say I'm optimistic we can get a deal done, I mean what I'm saying.

KELEMEN: His aides say, in his waning months of office, this is a good time to really push for peace because he's not running for office and not worried as much about politics. But many people in the region have serious doubts and are thinking ahead. Even the president's aides say they got questions from their hosts about the U.S. primaries and which president they might be dealing with next.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Sharma El Sheikh, Egypt.

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Bush Vows to Stay Engaged in Peacemaking Effort

President Bush promised Wednesday to stay engaged in pulling Israelis and Palestinians toward a peace pact by the end of his term in January 2009.

The president has been met by Arab skepticism during his eight-day trip to the Mideast, but he got a boost from Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak during his final stop.

Mubarak said he would work hand-in-hand with the U.S. on a deal to create an independent Palestinian state. "I also said that I wish that he will reach a peace agreement before the end of his term," Mubarak said, through a translator.

Mubarak Pledges Support

He said he stressed to Bush that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is at the core of the turmoil in the region.

"We are keen on supporting peace efforts," Mubarak said. "We are ready, hand-in-hand with the United States of America," and others to work for the "sake of a comprehensive and just peace, to put an end to this Israeli-Palestinian conflict, to open new horizons for the Middle East for a more peaceful and secure future."

Bush said he will return to the Middle East in May to push the process forward.

"When I say I'm coming back to stay engaged, I mean it," said Bush. "When I say I'm optimistic we can get a deal done, I mean what I'm saying."

Bush said he is convinced that leaders in both Israel and the West Bank are committed to a two-state solution.

Mubarak, Bush Meet

"I know nations in the neighborhood are willing to help, particularly yourself," Bush told Mubarak.

Standing alongside Mubarak, Bush urged greater political openness in Egypt, but did not directly criticize the Egyptian government for what the U.S. sees as a lack of political freedoms. Bush praised Egypt for taking some steps toward democratic reform, but said more was needed.

"My hope is that the Egyptian government will build on these important steps."

The Egyptian government has waged a heavy crackdown on its strongest domestic opposition, the Muslim Brotherhood, arresting hundreds of the Islamic fundamentalist group's members, as well as some secular opponents.

And Bush did not mention prominent jailed political opponent Ayman Nour, whose case U.S. officials have pledged to raise with the Egyptians every time they meet. The State Department called Nour's 2006 trial on election-related charges a miscarriage of justice.

Support for Lebanon

Wrapping up his journey, which included a side trip to Baghdad by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Bush said the fragile Iraqi government was making progress on political reconciliation.

"The government isn't perfect, but nevertheless, progress is being made," he said, pledging U.S. support for Iraqi security and democracy.

Bush, who left Egypt after his remarks to return to Washington, also expressed support for the weak U.S.-backed government in Lebanon, and called on Syria and Iran to stop interfering in Beirut.

"We agreed it's important for nations in this region to support Prime Minister [Fuad] Saniora," Bush said. "It's important to encourage the holding of immediate, unconditional presidential elections according to the Lebanese constitution and to make it clear to Syria, Iran and their allies they must end their interference and efforts to undermine the process."

From NPR reports and The Associated Press

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