Vice president Dick Cheney arrives in Cairo, starting Mideast tour |

Vice president Dick Cheney arrives in Cairo, starting Mideast tour

CAIRO, Egypt – Vice President Dick Cheney began a Mideast visit Monday to confer with the United States’ top allies in the region – Saudi Arabia and Egypt – on the political process in Iraq and on the West’s standoffs with Syria and Iran.Cheney, who arrived Monday in the Egyptian capital, meets Tuesday with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak before heading to Saudi Arabia for talks with King Abdullah. Cheney added a stop Wednesday in Kuwait to pay his respects after the death of the country’s emir, Sheik Jaber Al Ahmed Al Sabah, over the weekend.Arab diplomats said high on the agenda will be the situation in Iraq following the Dec. 15 elections, the crisis with Syria over the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, and a looming standoff over the Iranian nuclear program.The diplomats, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issues, said both Saudi Arabia and Egypt are particularly concerned over the role of Iraq’s Sunni Arab minority after Shiite victories in the vote.Saudi Arabia and Egypt are the two Arab powers behind an Iraqi national reconciliation conference that is expected to convene next month in Iraq to clear the way for a larger Sunni participation in the political process.Cheney also is expected to discuss the crisis with Syria amid signs that President Bashar Assad is asking Saudi Arabia and Egypt to help defuse the crisis over accusations that Damascus was involved in the Feb. 14 killing of Hariri and the slayings of anti-Syrian activists in Lebanon. Assad is reportedly offering a package deal. In it Syria would end interference in Lebanon and extend its cooperation with the U.N. investigators in Hariri’s assassination, in exchange for an end to U.S.-led Western pressure on Assad’s regime.Cheney’s visit also comes amid an escalating confrontation with Iran, with Washington and Europe moving to bring Tehran before the U.N. Security Council over its nuclear program.Both Saudi Arabia and Egypt have been reluctant to publicly criticize Iran for its nuclear activities, urging instead to declare the whole Middle East – including Israel – a nuclear free zone. Washington has rejected that idea.Cheney is making the trip to visit stops that were cut from his Middle East tour last month when he rushed back to Washington to cast a tie-breaking vote in the Senate on legislation to cut federal deficits.His visit to Cairo comes after sharp U.S. criticism of Egypt after parliament elections in December that were marred by police violence against opposition voters and after the conviction of Ayman Nour, the opposition politician who came in second to Mubarak in presidential elections in September.It was not known Cheney will discuss the Nour case – or the broader issue of democratic reform in Egypt – in talks with Mubarak.Vail, Colorado

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