KUWAIT CITY — After two days of meetings with Israeli and Palestinian officials intended to push peace negotiations there, President Bush arrived in oil-rich Kuwait on Friday for conversations that are expected to center on ways of pacifying Iraq and containing Iran.
An entourage of Kuwaiti officials welcomed Bush at Kuwait's airport. He dined later with the country's leader, Emir Sabah al Ahmed al Sabah, at the emir's residence. Among the officials at the dinner was the country's only female Cabinet minister.
On Saturday, the president is expected to meet with the two top American officials in Iraq, Army Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker, about developments in Iraq. Later, he'll speak to U.S. soldiers and host a roundtable with Kuwaiti women about democracy.
Foreign Minister Mohammed al Sabah told Kuwait Television late Friday that Bush had promised to consider Kuwait's request to release four Kuwaitis that the U.S. is holding at the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Sabah said the emir had reminded Bush that eight others who'd been released had been "model citizens" and were helping young Kuwaitis avoid violent extremism.
Kuwaiti newspapers, citing Kuwaiti government officials, said Bush also was expected to press Kuwait to agree to lower reparations payments from Iraq for that country's 1990 invasion and occupation, but there was no word on whether the subject had been broached. Iraq pays Kuwait 5 percent of its oil revenues; it would like that dropped to 1 or 2 percent, with the difference to be directed to its reconstruction.
There also was no word on whether the emir had lobbied Bush on military action against Iran, though Kuwaiti papers said the emir was expected to oppose the idea, arguing that it would destabilize the region.
In Israel, the newspaper Yediot Ahronot reported that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had made the opposite case and presented Bush with updated intelligence in hopes of persuading the president not to give up on a military strike as a possible option to disrupt Iran's nuclear program.
"Both of us are giving the economic steps (a chance) but I'm sure the president is aware of how serious we are taking the threat," said Sallai Meridor, Israel's ambassador to the United States. "When we say that all options are on the table these are not just words."
Israeli officials have been openly critical of a recent report by U.S. intelligence agencies that says Iran suspended its nuclear weapons program in 2003 and has yet to restart it. The report was considered a major reversal and likely to end U.S. consideration of a military strike.
On Friday, Bush didn't mention Iran. But he acknowledged Israeli fears during an emotional visit to that country's Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial before boarding Air Force One for the flight to Kuwait.
Wearing a yarmulke and accompanied by Olmert, Israeli President Shimon Perez and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Bush lit a torch in memory of Holocaust victims and placed a wreath at the site, which he called "a sobering reminder that evil exists and a call that when we find evil we must resist it."
"Twice I saw tears well up in his eyes," said Avner Shalev, Yad Vashem's chairman.
At one point, Bush called Rice over to look at aerial shots of the Auschwitz concentration camp, established in Poland during World War II. The two discussed why the U.S. had decided not to attack the concentration camp during the war.
"We should have bombed it," Bush told Rice, according to Shalev.
Before leaving, he signed the visitors' book: "God bless Israel, George Bush."
He promised to return to Israel this year, probably in May, when the country will celebrate its 60th birthday.
The president's meetings with Petraeus and Crocker in Kuwait to discuss Iraq are symbolic recognition of the key role that the country has played in American acrimony toward Iraq's former dictator, Saddam Hussein.
Saddam's invasion and occupation of Kuwait led Bush's father, President George H.W. Bush, to mobilize an international coalition that drove Iraqi troops from Kuwait in 1991. Two years later, Saddam allegedly organized a plot to assassinate the first President Bush during his visit to Kuwait to mark the U.S. victory there.
The current President Bush cited that foiled plot as evidence of Saddam's hostility toward the United States in the months before the March 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. "There's no doubt (that Saddam) can't stand us," Bush said in Houston in September 2002. "After all, this is the guy that tried to kill my dad at one time."
Thousands of U.S. soldiers remain based in Kuwait, which still is the primary conduit for war materiel needed by American troops in Iraq.
Bush is expected to tout recent security gains in Iraq when he appears before soldiers at Camp Arifjan, south of Kuwait City.
Later, he'll host a roundtable with Kuwaiti women about democracy. The role of women in political life is a sensitive topic in Kuwait. Women won the right to vote and seek elective office only in 2005. There's just one woman in the Cabinet, Education Minister Nouriya al Subaih, who refuses to cover her head and has come under pressure to resign from Islamists over the sexual assault of three boys by Asian workers at a primary school.
But her presence at the emir's residence for dinner was a sign that she's unlikely to be forced from the government.
(Fadel reported from Kuwait, Nissenbaum from Jerusalem. McClatchy special correspondent Cliff Churgin contributed to this article from Jerusalem.)
McClatchy Newspapers 2008