Bush seeks backing against Iran from wary Gulf

United States President George Bush arrived in Kuwait on Friday to rally the support of Arab allies against what he calls the Iranian “threat” after making a bold prediction for Middle East peace.

Bush flew in aboard Air Force One after his first presidential trip to the Holy Land, where he said he believed a peace treaty would be signed within a year and called on Arab nations to reach out to the Jewish state.

His tour of Washington’s closest friends in the oil-rich Gulf region comes amid escalating tensions between the US and Iran over a naval confrontation in the strategic Strait of Hormuz.

But several commentators in the region have voiced strong misgivings about his intentions, amid fears Washington could resort to military action in the long-running stand-off over Iran’s disputed nuclear drive.

Although Kuwait is welcoming Bush as a friend, officials have said the emirate will not allow the United States to use its territory as a launch pad for any strike against Iran.

“Mr president, the region needs smart initiatives not smart bombs,” Kuwaiti newspaper al-Rai said in a front-page editorial.

Kuwait was a springboard for the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq that toppled then-dictator Saddam Hussein, whose forces had invaded his tiny neighbour in 1990 before the emirate was liberated by a US-led coalition in early 1991.

The Gulf monarchies, including Qatar, which Bush visited in 2003, all have close military ties with the US and are major buyers of American weaponry.

About 15 000 US troops are stationed in Kuwait, which hosts one of Washington’s largest military bases in the region, Camp Arifjan, and other smaller camps used as a transit point for US-led forces in Iraq.

Security will be tight for the visit, which will see Bush address troops on Saturday after talks on Friday with emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah.

After Kuwait, Bush will make the first visit by a serving US president to Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates before going to Saudi Arabia, the regional Sunni Arab powerhouse and world’s top oil exporter.

At the start of the trip in Israel on Wednesday, he warned that Iran posed “a threat to world peace” and should not be allowed to develop the know-how to build a nuclear weapon. Iran denies seeking nuclear arms.

A US intelligence report made public last month said Tehran halted a covert nuclear weapons programme in 2003, but Bush insisted: “A country that once had a secret programme can easily restart a secret programme.”

Bush also warned Tehran of “serious consequences” if it attacked US warships following a face-off between the two in the strategic Strait of Hormuz on Sunday.

Tehran accuses Washington of using the incident in the waterway — a vital conduit for energy supplies — as a propaganda stunt to paint Iran in a bad light during Bush’s Middle East trip.

Bush’s Gulf trip coincided with a visit to Tehran by UN nuclear watchdog chief Mohamed ElBaradei, who is seeking more answers over its atomic programme, which Iran insists is purely for energy generation.

Iranian cleric Ahmad Khatami urged Arab leaders in a Friday prayer sermon to distance themselves from Bush’s “Iranophobia project”, saying they should have “the wisdom not to tie their fate with a pathetic and bankrupt president who will be finished in a year”.

After two days of talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, Bush predicted they could sign a peace treaty within a year, a deal that would give him a foreign policy triumph that has eluded previous US administrations.

Dubai’s Gulf News, in a front-page letter to Bush, launched a stinging attack on his administration’s policy in the Middle East, chiefly its support for Israel despite the “oppression” of the Palestinians.

“We realise that containing Iran, selling more weapons and securing cheap oil supplies are the main issues on your mind as you tour the region,” the paper said, dismissing Bush’s “claim” to want to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Al-Khaleej, another UAE daily, said Bush was “striving to transform the Arab-Israeli conflict into an Arab-Iranian conflict, since nuclear Israel, which is armed to the teeth with weapons of mass destruction, which is aggressive, expansionist, racist and an international outlaw, does not threaten world peace.” — AFP

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