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Qatar's Emir Becomes First Postwar Arab Leader to Visit U.S.

The emir of Qatar (search) -- the tiny Gulf nation that served as the combat operations center for the coalition attack on Iraq -- has become the first Arab leader to visit Washington after the war.

Analysts said the move was designed to show support for the U.S. and to signal to other Arab nations that America was willing to hear Arab postwar concerns. It also revealed Qatar as a small country with big ideas that had the clout to win an audience with President Bush (search).

"(It was) ... an occasion for the Americans to hear from the Arabs, behind closed doors, how the Arabs feel after the end of the war in Iraq, their worries and their concerns," said Gulf-based political analyst Qassem Jafaar.

Emir Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani (search) met with Bush on Thursday, a day after holding discussions with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld (searchand congressional leaders. He also was traveling to Britain and France to meet with leaders there.

Qatar, a strong U.S. ally since Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990, has proven an outspoken critic of some countries in the Middle East and stands out for its bold domestic reforms in the conservative Gulf.

Like other Arab countries, Qatar is pushing for the quick establishment of a locally run administration in a unified Iraq.

Bush "is more prepared to listen to what Qatar has to say, and will find it easier to accept" than from other Arab nations, Jafaar said.

Qatar has "a very unique and special relationship" with the United States that is not just about security arrangements, the Gulf analyst said in a telephone interview from London.

"There is an element of trust in the relationship," Jafaar said.

In an affirmation of its ties with Qatar, the United States announced two weeks ago that its air operations base would move from Saudi Arabia to Qatar's al-Udeid base. About 3,000 coalition troops are operating out of Qatar now.

For at least a decade, Qatar has been making moves that surprised and often embarrassed other Arab leaders.

It signed an agreement with Iran in 1991 to supply it with fresh water through an undersea pipeline, a move that was viewed with reservations from some of its Gulf neighbors who worry about Iran's influence.

In 1996, Qatar became the first Gulf country to have open diplomatic and economic relations with Israel. But the Israeli trade office has been closed since the Israeli-Palestinian peace process failed and violence re-erupted 31 months ago.

Qatar, which sits on the world's third-largest reserves of natural gas, is one of few Gulf countries to embark on a political reform program and called for more democracy in the region long before the war in Iraq.

Like most Arab countries, Qatar favored a diplomatic solution to the war in Iraq, but unlike the others, it did not hide its cooperation with Washington as Saudi Arabia did.

Mohammed al-Musfir, a Qatari political analyst, said talks with the United States would also be smoothed by the fact that -- unlike other Arab countries -- Qatar has no vested interests in Iraq.

"It position is clear. It doesn't seek economic assistance from the United States, and is not worried about its internal security from instability in Iraq," he said.