(AFP) – Jan 11, 2008
KUWAIT CITY (AFP) — US President George W. Bush met Kuwait's emir on Friday after arriving in the emirate to start a Gulf tour aimed at rallying the support of Arab allies against what he calls the Iranian "threat."
Bush flew into Kuwait from Israel after his first presidential trip to the Holy Land, where he said he believed a Middle East peace treaty would be signed within a year and called on Arab nations to reach out to the Jewish state.
His tour of Washington's closest friends in the oil-rich Gulf region comes amid escalating tensions between the United States and Iran over a naval confrontation in the strategic Strait of Hormuz.
But several commentators in the region have voiced strong misgivings about his intentions, amid fears Washington could resort to military action to halt Iran's disputed nuclear drive.
Although Kuwait is welcoming Bush as a friend, officials have said the emirate will not allow the United States to use its territory as a launchpad for any strike against Iran.
"Mr President, the region needs smart initiatives not smart bombs," the Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Rai said in a front-page editorial.
Kuwait was a springboard for the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq that toppled then dictator Saddam Hussein, whose forces had invaded his tiny neighbour in 1990 before the emirate was liberated by a US-led coalition in early 1991.
Kuwait's state KUNA news agency said Bush's talks with emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah focused on "bilateral issues and the latest political developments in the Middle East."
The Kuwaiti ruler, who led a red-carpet welcome for Bush when he flew into the country, hosted a banquet for the US leader.
The Gulf monarchies all have close military ties with the United States and are major buyers of American weaponry.
Around 15,000 US troops are stationed in Kuwait, which hosts one of Washington's largest military bases in the region, Camp Arifjan, and other smaller camps used as a transit point for US-led forces in Iraq.
Security was tight for the visit, which will see Bush address troops on Saturday and hold a meeting with Kuwaiti women activists.
Meanwhile, a group representing relatives of Kuwaiti detainees at the US military facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, called in a statement for the release of the four remaining Kuwaiti prisoners so they could be tried in the emirate.
From Kuwait, Bush will make the first visit by a serving US president to Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates before going to Saudi Arabia, the regional Sunni Arab powerhouse and world's top oil exporter.
In Israel on Wednesday, he warned that Iran posed "a threat to world peace" and should not be allowed to develop the know-how to build a nuclear weapon. Iran denies seeking nuclear arms.
A US intelligence report made public last month said Tehran halted a covert nuclear weapons programme in 2003, but Bush insisted: "A country that once had a secret programme can easily restart a secret programme."
Bush also warned Tehran of "serious consequences" if it attacked US warships following a weekend face-off in the Strait of Hormuz.
Tehran accuses Washington of using the incident in the waterway -- a vital conduit for energy supplies -- as a propaganda stunt to paint Iran in a bad light during Bush's Middle East trip.
Bush's Gulf trip coincided with a rare visit to Tehran by UN nuclear watchdog chief Mohamed ElBaradei who is seeking more answers over its atomic programme.
After two days of talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, Bush predicted they could sign a peace treaty within a year, a deal that would give him a foreign policy triumph.
On Thursday, he called on both sides to make "difficult choices" to enable the creation of a Palestinian state and end Israel's 40-year occupation of Arab land. He also urged Arab countries "to reach out to Israel."
Negotiations were revived amid great fanfare in November after a near seven-year freeze but have faltered over settlement expansion and escalating Israeli-Palestinian violence, underlining the tough task ahead.
Bush said he planned to return to Israel for its 60th anniversary celebrations in May and to help advance the peace negotiations.
He has voiced support for an Arab plan revived in March last year that offered full normalisation of ties with Israel in return for its withdrawal from all Arab land.
Israel's government spokesman said the two sides would begin talks next week on the core issues at the heart of their decades-old conflict -- borders, settlements, refugees and Jerusalem.
But further complicating peacemaking is Hamas's bloody takeover in June of the Gaza Strip, a move that split Palestinian society and left president Mahmud Abbas with authority over only part of a future state.
And many in the Arab world are sceptical that Bush can be an honest broker, with Dubai's Gulf News launching a stinging attack on his administration's Middle East policy, chiefly its support for Israel despite the "oppression" of the Palestinians.
"We realise that containing Iran, selling more weapons and securing cheap oil supplies are the main issues on your mind as you tour the region," the paper said, dismissing Bush's "claim" to want to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
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