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Gates and Rice Head to Middle East

ALEX COHEN, host:

From the studios of NPR West, this is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Cohen.

ALEX CHADWICK.

I'm Alex Chadwick.

Coming up, mission impossible for Admiral Mike Mullen? He's supposed to become the most senior military officer in the country, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. We'll look at his Hollywood upbringing and his ties to Peter Graves, star of TV's "Mission Impossible."

COHEN: But first, today the president's team unveiled a huge aid package for the Middle East. According to initial reports, as much as $20 billion will go to Saudi Arabia; 13 billion is slated to go to Egypt; and for Israel, $30 billion. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made the announcement hours before leaving with Defense Secretary Robert Gates on a rare joint trip to the Middle East.

And as NPR's defense correspondent Guy Raz reports, the two have an ambitious agenda. Iraq is only one part of the discussion.

GUY RAZ: Whenever the president or another administration official speaks out against military withdrawal from Iraq, they often invoke the fear this would cause among the Gulf Arab countries. Here's the president, for example, earlier this month talking about what could happen if the U.S. pulled out of Iraq.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: All these extremist groups would be emboldened by a precipitous American withdrawal, which would confuse and frighten friends and allies in the region.

RAZ: Except one of those friends and allies, the Saudi King Abdullah, didn't seemed to give off that vibe recently at a conference of Arab leaders. You'll hear him speak through a translator.

King ABDULLAH (Saudi Arabia) (Through Translator): In our beloved Iraq, we see the bloodshed among brothers in the light of an illegal foreign occupation.

RAZ: Now that comment...

Mr. PETER RODMAN (Brookings Institution): It was very unhelpful and just mistaken.

RAZ: Unhelpful, says Peter Rodman, because it undermined the administration's message. Up until a few months ago Peter Rodman was the Pentagon's chief liaison to the Saudis. He insists that behind closed doors the Saudis are terrified of an American withdrawal from Iraq. But the Saudi message is certainly a mixed one. Here's Ray Takeyh of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Mr. RAY TAKEYH (Council on Foreign Relations): To us, they say that America - a precipitous American withdrawal particularly would be calamitous. To their domestic audiences they actually are very critical of the United States and have often called for a withdrawal of American forces. So the question is, will the real Saudis please stand up.

RAZ: This is the question the two secretaries, Gates and Rice, hope to answer in the coming weeks. A senior Pentagon official who couldn't be quoted on the record says the Saudis are, quote, "hedging their bets," assuming an American withdrawal from Iraq is imminent. As a result, the official says, the Saudis have started to look around for their own clients among Iraq's Sunni community. Many of those Sunni leaders are actively undermining the Shiite-dominated and U.S.-backed central government in Iraq, the official adds.

Here's Gregory Gause, who studies Persian Gulf politics at the University of Vermont.

Professor GREGORY GAUSE (Political Science, University of Vermont): Right now we've got a lot of problems in Iraq. Having the Saudis encouraging Sunni groups not to cooperate with the government, to contest for power, just adds to those problems.

RAZ: According to a senior Pentagon official, 40 percent of all foreign fighters operating in Iraq today are Saudi nationals. The Saudis and other Gulf Arab states regard the Shiite-dominated government in Iraq as nothing more than a client of Iran. Meanwhile, public opinion in these countries isn't much bothered about Iran; the governing elite is.

In the 1980s, Iran pursued policies that destabilized countries like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain. All of these countries are ruled by Sunni Muslims, yet they have sizable Shiite Muslim populations. And Shiites in these countries have long sought greater equality. And so Iran in the past figured out how to quietly provoke these Shiites living under Sunni rule. In the past, Iraq's Sunni-dominated government held Iran in check. But Ray Takeyh says with Iran now gaining influence in Iraq...

Mr. TAKEYH: The balance of power is gone. And the reliability of the United States is in question. And the popularity of the United States in the Gulf is non-existent.

GAZ: And so Peter Rodman says both secretaries will be trying to convince the Saudis that the United States is reliable.

Mr. RODMAN: What is important is that we assure our friends that we're staying in the region, we're not being driven out, we're not going to be defeated, that this president has staying power. And I think that is what all our friends in the region are hoping to hear.

RAZ: It's a message that has to succeed, says one Pentagon official. Without the Saudis on board, the official says, our whole strategy in Iraq is unwinnable.

Guy Raz, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Guy Raz is the host, co-creator, and editorial director of three NPR programs, including two of its most popular ones: TED Radio Hour and How I Built This. Both shows are heard by more than 14 million people each month around the world. He is also the creator and co-host of NPR's first-ever podcast for kids, Wow In The World.
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