Rice meets Arab foreign ministers on new Mideast tour

    By DPA

    Sharm El-Sheikh : US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and US Defence Secretary Robert Gates have held parleys with the Egyptian, Jordanian and Arab Gulf foreign ministers at the start of a tour aimed at kick-starting the Middle East peace process.

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    At a joint press conference with Egypt's Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul-Gheit after the meeting in this Egyptian resort, Rice said Tuesday she hoped a series of planned meetings would pave the way to US President George W. Bush's proposed autumn conference on establishing a Palestinian state.

    Abul-Gheit said the discussions were "beneficial and important", adding: "We exchanged our views clearly and honestly, and we sense an understanding between Rice and the other foreign ministers."

    Rice also met Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, while Gates had talks with his Saudi counterpart Sultan Ibn Abdul-Aziz before his own meeting with Mubarak.

    A spokesman for the Egyptian presidency Ambassador Suliman Awwad said the meetings with Mubarak tackled the regional situation in general, especially the Palestinian case, Iraq and Darfur.

    Awwad said Mubarak had stressed that the Palestinian cause was the core of the Middle East conflict, while Egypt regarded the Iraqi conflict as "a purely Arab cause" to do with a country "possessing all (potential) factors of stability and reconstruction".

    The visit of Rice and Gates "reflected the US awareness of the dangerous situation the region had been going through", he added.

    A communiqué issued earlier after the US-Arab ministerial meeting said they agreed to coordinate efforts "to promote regional peace and security," reaffirming "shared vision" of "a stable, peaceful Middle East".

    The statement reiterated commitment to "the two-state solution" towards ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and expressed "deep concerns over the humanitarian conditions of the Palestinians, particularly in Gaza", while asserting their support for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and his government.

    The foreign ministers welcomed Bush's proposal to launch talks on the establishment of a Palestinian state this autumn.

    They also confirmed the "sovereignty, territorial integrity and the national unity of Iraq and called for an end to all interference there, including supply of arms, training armed groups and "transit of terrorists to Iraq".

    Rice and Gates later met Saudi King Abdullah in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

    The two sides discussed the development of the Palestinian case and Iraqi sovereignty, political independence and national unity, the Saudi Press Agency (SPA) reported. The meeting also tackled the nuclear situation, Lebanon and terrorism.

    The Middle East tour was widely seen as an attempt to unite the United States' Arab allies to counter the influence of Iran and Syria.

    It was preceded by the US government's announcement Monday of a new package of military assistance and arms sales for Israel, Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries.

    The US will launch a $30 billion programme in military assistance for Israel, and a $13 billion plan for Egypt, each lasting 10 years.

    Rice said this was to "bolster forces of moderation and support a broader strategy to counter the negative influences of Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, Syria, and Iran".

    US Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns said that while Iran had been a factor in the US decision to announce fresh military aid, the decision also reflected decades of US policy to provide military support to friendly, moderate countries in the Middle East.

    Burns, himself expected to travel to the Middle East in August to work out aid agreements with other countries, stressed that the US had not abandoned its policy of urging democratic and economic reforms in the region.

    Analysts said Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia have become growing rivals in the region, and the Saudis have been worried that a Shia government in Iraq will allow Iran to increase its influence.

    Iran has condemned US arms sales to Saudi Arabia, saying the "horror scenario" was aimed at creating fear and dividing the region.

    "The US creates policies to damage relations among countries in the Middle East by stoking fear and distrust," said Mohammad Ali Hosseini, spokesman for Iran's foreign ministry.