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Iraq, Iran focus of Gates trip to region

Times Staff Writer

Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates arrived in Jordan on Monday, the first stop on a tour of several Middle Eastern countries designed to drum up support for Iraq’s government and continue talks with allies on how to counter Iranian influence.

The trip, with scheduled stops in Jordan, Egypt and Israel, is Gates’ third to the region since he became Defense secretary in December. The frequent visits signal how the situation in Iraq, Iran and the larger Middle East dominates Gates’ work in the Pentagon.

A senior Defense official said Gates’ message to Jordan and Egypt is that supporting Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki’s government is the best way to prevent Iranian dominance of the region. The U.S. wants Jordan and Egypt to push other states to treat Iraq as a full partner at meetings and in regional groups such as the Arab League.

“We would hope to hear they would continue their support for the Maliki government,” the official said.

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“We truly believe that is the most important way to mitigate Iranian pressure.”

The official spoke to reporters traveling with Gates on condition of anonymity because the talks had not yet begun.

In brief remarks en route, Gates said he was visiting Jordan because he believed it had been a “constructive influence” in the region. He planned to discuss the Iraq war, Lebanon and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process with King Abdullah II.

A major component of the agenda is prodding U.S. allies in the Arab world to increase their support for Maliki’s Shiite Muslim-led government. Jordan and Egypt are Sunni-dominated states with some skepticism of Baghdad’s ties with Iran and treatment of Iraq’s minority Sunni Arabs.

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Some Sunni regimes in the region worry that Maliki’s government could form an alliance with Tehran, in effect increasing Iranian power.

Defense Department officials acknowledge that the support for Maliki in Sunni-dominated nations is not as firm as they would like.

“There is skepticism that the Maliki government is a strong government,” said the official who requested anonymity. “But I think the secretary and [President Bush] have been firm in that Maliki has shown a tremendous amount of fortitude ... in making tough decisions and carrying them out.”

The Bush administration is counting on Jordan, Egypt and Persian Gulf Arab countries to continue to oppose what Washington charges is Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons and support for terrorist organizations and violent political movements.

Jordan and Egypt have been opposed to the Iranian nuclear program, and U.S. officials believe the two nations are worried about Iranian support for the Islamic militant groups Hezbollah, in Lebanon, and Hamas, in the Palestinian territories.

The perceived threat of Iran to the governments in the region also will be the backdrop for expected discussions of the sale of American-made arms to Saudi Arabia and other Arab nations.

The U.S. has been urging some of the more powerful countries to modernize their militaries, to make them more “expeditionary” and positioned better to fight terrorism threats.

But the Israeli government has voiced concern over Washington’s planned sales of precision-guided bombs to Saudi Arabia. The U.S. has sold such weapons to Israel, which used them last year in its war with Hezbollah in Lebanon, but has not sold the weapons to other countries in the region.

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Pentagon officials say they hope to persuade Israeli officials that helping modernize the weaponry of Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries is not a threat to Israel but rather an important way to counter the Iranian arms buildup.

As the senior official said, the message to Israel might boil down to this: The enemy of my enemy is my friend.

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julian.barnes@latimes.com


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