Cheney to Face Skepticism in Middle East Over Tougher Stance on Iraq

Vice President Dick Cheney will find it a hard sell to enlist Arab support for deposing Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. He promises no announcements but a lot of listening during his swing through the Middle East.

"I'll be there to conduct frank discussions and to solicit the views of important friends and allies," Cheney said of a trip that will take him to nine Arab nations, Israel and Turkey.

Cheney was beginning the trip on Tuesday in Jordan, where King Abdullah II said ahead of the visit that, while Jordan supports the U.S.-led war on terrorism, it "rejects the use of force against Iraq."

Turkey has also warned the United States that a military strike against neighboring Iraq could destabilize the region. Leaders of Saudi Arabia and Egypt also oppose a military campaign against Iraq.

The Bush administration is mindful of the Arab world's suspicions of any widening of the terror war into its neighborhood.

"I will be discussing the current actions of the coalition. We will confer as well about the threat of weapons of mass destruction and the important choices that await us in the days ahead," Cheney said on Monday.

"In these matters, America is not announcing decisions," he added.

Still, it was clear that the United States, supported by Britain, has been sharpening its rhetoric against Saddam and laying a groundwork for possible military action against him.

"Saddam Hussein and the weapons of mass destruction that he has acquired is not in doubt at all," British Prime Minister Tony Blair said Monday at a joint 10 Downing Street news conference with Cheney.

"The threat," Blair added, "will have to be addressed."

Blair said no final decisions had been made on the war's next phase — and Cheney offered no timetable.

The reaction Cheney will receive from the Middle East will surely contrast with Blair's words of support.

Britain has been America's strongest ally in the anti-terrorism campaign. The two countries also continue to patrol no-fly zones in Iraq.

Blair's strong military alignment with the Bush administration has brought him some political criticism at home. Cheney said that any widening of the war that might involve British forces "would be done only in the closest possible consultation-coordination."

President Bush has called Iraq part of an "axis of evil" that sponsors terrorism and seeks to build weapons of mass destruction.

As well as testing the waters on a tougher policy against Iraq, Cheney was to talk to Middle Eastern leaders about spiraling Israeli-Palestinian violence.

He denied any linkage between the Israeli-Palestinian issue and Iraq.

"I'm sure they're linked in some minds, but the fact of the matter is, we need effective policies to deal with both situations," Cheney said.

Some Arab states have been pressing the United States for more U.S. involvement in the peace process — including applying more pressure on Israel. It could figure into the degree of support the United States gets from the region if it decides for sure to move militarily against Baghdad.

In any event, Cheney aides said they expected both subjects — Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian crisis — to come up at each stop.

Jordan — a moderate nation with close ties to the United States that signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1994 — has been an important Islamic-world ally in the war on terror.

But Abdullah made it clear ahead of Cheney's arrival that he would oppose military action against Iraq, which borders his country.

"A strike on Iraq will be disastrous for Iraq and the region as a whole and will threaten the security and stability of the Middle East," Abdullah told Iraqi envoy Izzat Ibrahim on Sunday, according to a palace statement.