JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia – Vice President Dick Cheney collected more rebuffs on Iraq Saturday even as he conveyed growing U.S. interest in a Saudi-sponsored Middle East peace initiative.
Cheney met with Saudi leaders who have expressed sharp reservations about any U.S. plan to move militarily against Iraq.
Saudi Arabia was the sixth stop on Cheney's 11-nation Middle East tour. Each of the six countries he has visited in the region so far has opposed a tougher stand on Iraq.
The Saudi rejection was expected and telegraphed well in advance. But it was significant because of the importance the United States places on the role of Saudi Arabia in the region.
It would be difficult for the United States to mount a successful military campaign against Iraq without the support – or at least acquiescence – of Saudi Arabia, many military analysts suggest.
Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah met Cheney at the airport, walking out on a long red carpet to greet him. The two stood at attention as a Saudi band played the national anthems of both countries.
Cheney then had an audience with the ailing King Fahd and the met again with Abdullah, including a dinner session.
Abdullah is the de facto leader of the country since Fahd, his half brother, had a stroke in 1995.
Abdullah's peace initiative – offering Israel full diplomatic recognition in exchange for a withdrawal of lands it seized in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war – was fast gaining support in the Arab world.
Cheney's message to Abdullah was that the United States supported his efforts even though at this point the plan does not have a lot of details, U.S. officials said.
The Bush administration sees the Abdullah plan as possibly adding to the momentum to reduce violence when it is presented at an Arab League conference this month in Lebanon.
In one Arab nation after another, Cheney has found leaders primarily focused on resolving the corrosive Israeli-Palestinian crisis, no matter how much he tries to change the subject to a tougher stand on Baghdad.
Every Middle Eastern country he has visited so far has rejected proposals to confront Iraq militarily – Jordan, Egypt, Yemen, Oman, and now the United Arab Emerites and Saudi Arabia.
Just ahead of Cheney's visit, Abdullah warned that the United States cannot overthrow the Iraqi leader, and that any strike against Iraq would just increase anti-U.S. feeling in the region.
Abdullah, in interviews with both CNN and ABC, said it was important for Iraq to remain unified.
In a separate interview with ABC's Barbara Walters, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal said that, should the United States decide to attack Iraq, it could not use Saudi bases for its attacks.
Saudi's offer of bases to U.S. soldiers and warplanes was a major factor in the 1991 Gulf War.
More recently, Saudi Arabia publicly denied the United States use of its bases to launch direct attacks against Afghanistan, and Abdullah criticized the U.S. bombing there.
Even so, the Prince Sultan Air Base, where about 4,500 U.S. soldiers and an undisclosed number of warplanes are based in the Saudi desert, has been an important nerve center of the air campaign in Afghanistan.
U.S. forces remained in the kingdom after the Gulf War.
The eviction of U.S. forces from Saudi Arabia, which is home to Islam's holiest sites, has been the major demand of Saudi dissident Usama bin Laden, whom the United States accuses of a string of attacks against American interests, including the Sept. 11 attacks.
On his way to Saudi Arabia from Muscat, Oman, Cheney made a two-hour stop in Abu Dhabi, the United Arab Emirates.
The visit included a meeting at the presidential palace with Emirates President Sheik Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan.
"The vice president made the point that Al Qaeda can't be allowed to reconstitute" in the Middle East after the terrorist organization's defeats in Afghanistan, Cheney spokeswoman Jennifer Millerwise said.
She said that the subject of Iraq came up, that that Cheney reiterated his position that any agreement by Saddam to allow U.N. weapons inspectors back into his country must be unconditional.
The president expressed opposition to military action against Iraq, according to later statement by his government.
As the United States contemplates targeting Saddam, it would like to use states in the region as likely staging grounds.
But Cheney is finding sentiment has changed dramatically since he toured the region in 1990 to successfully drum up support for the campaign to drive Iraq out of Kuwait.