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In Mideast, Keep Eyes On Abdullah, Cheney

By David Ignatius

WASHINGTON-- Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice may make the headlines with her high-profile diplomatic missions to the Middle East. But for a glimpse at the hidden power plays, keep your eye on Vice President Dick Cheney's trip this week to Saudi Arabia.

Saudi King Abdullah has emerged over the past nine months as the Bush administration's most important and strong-willed Arab ally. He launched an aggressive campaign last fall to contain Iranian influence in the Arab world and, in the process, buttress U.S. interests in the region despite America's setbacks in Iraq. It's Cheney, whose blunt, unsmiling demeanor matches Saudi notions of American gravitas, who manages the Abdullah account.

The Cheney visit is aimed partly at mutual reassurance. Both sides want to reaffirm the alliance, despite disagreements over Iraq policy and the Palestinian issue. The Saudis also want to establish an additional channel for communication so they can avoid misunderstandings that have sometimes arisen when the primary intermediary is Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the freewheeling former Saudi ambassador to Washington who is now national security adviser.

Abdullah had seemed to be distancing himself from Washington in some recent comments. In February, he broke with U.S. efforts to isolate the radical Palestinian group Hamas by sponsoring the Mecca Agreement that created a Palestinian 'unity government' fusing Hamas with the more moderate group, Fatah. In March, he surprised U.S. officials by calling the military occupation of Iraq 'illegitimate' in a speech to an Arab League summit in Riyadh. He also nixed plans for a White House dinner in April.

Abdullah's criticism of the 'illegitimate' American presence in Iraq reflects the Saudi leader's deep misgivings about U.S. strategy there. Saudi sources say the king has given up on the ability of Iraq's Shiite prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, to overcome sectarian divisions and unite the country. The Saudi leadership is also said to believe that the current U.S. troop surge is likely to fail, deepening the danger of all-out civil war in Iraq.

The Saudis appear to favor replacing the Maliki government, which they see as dominated by Iranian-backed Shiite religious parties. As an alternative, the Saudis are quietly backing former interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite and ex-Baathist who has support among Iraqi Sunnis. Allawi's advisers say that his strategy is to exploit tensions within the Shiite religious alliance and form a new ruling coalition that would be made up of Sunnis, Kurds and secular Shiites. Allawi's camp believes he is close to having enough votes, thanks in part to Saudi political and financial support.

The Bush administration appears to have little enthusiasm for an Allawi putsch, despite its frustration with Maliki. U.S. officials fear that a change of government in Baghdad would only deepen the political disarray there and encourage new calls for withdrawal of American troops.

The ferment in the region is driven partly by the perception that U.S. troops are on the way out, no matter what the Bush administration says. To dampen such speculation, Bush is said to have told the Saudis that America will not withdraw from Iraq during his presidency. 'That gives us 18 months to plan,' said one Saudi source.

The heart of the U.S.-Saudi alliance is a new effort to combat Iran and its proxies in the Arab world. This began after last summer's war in Lebanon between Israel and the Iranian-backed Shiite militia, Hezbollah. Working closely with the United States, the Saudis began pumping money to Lebanese Sunni, Christian and Druze political groups that could counter Hezbollah's influence. The Saudis and Americans also cooperated in aiding Lebanon's Internal Security Force, the national police that effectively reports to the Sunni prime minister, Fouad Siniora.

Saudi-American cooperation against Iran has also extended to Yemen, where they have jointly assisted the Yemeni government in cracking down on an Iranian-funded group linked to followers of Shiite cleric Hussein al-Houthi, who was killed in 2004.

A final topic that's likely to be on Cheney's agenda is Syria. The Saudis support the administration's new effort, launched last week by Rice, to seek Syrian help in stabilizing Iraq. Indeed, the Saudis began moving to ease tensions with Syria at the March Arab League summit, after Syrian President Bashar al-Assad privately apologized to King Abdullah for calling him and other Sunni Arab leaders 'half men' because they didn't assist Hezbollah during the Lebanon war. U.S. officials believe, however, that the Saudis are continuing their contacts with Syrian opposition groups.

Saudi Arabia once conducted its political machinations behind a veil, quietly doling out cash in an effort to buy peace. Perhaps the worst mistake made by Iran's firebrand President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is that he frightened the Saudis into abandoning their traditional reticence -- and into secret strategy councils with the hard-nosed Cheney.

(c) 2007, The Washington Post Writers Group

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