JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia — President Bush's top foreign affairs and defense advisers sought Arab nations' help Tuesday in stabilizing Iraq, containing Iran and advancing Middle East peace, but ran head-on into concerns that the United States is about to make a rapid exit from Baghdad.
"There definitely is concern ... that the United States will somehow withdraw precipitously from Iraq or in some way that is destabilizing to the entire region," Defense Secretary Robert Gates said after he and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met senior officials from eight Arab countries.
The Gates-Rice mission comes at what could be a historic watershed for the U.S. role in the Middle East. A precipitous U.S. withdrawal from Iraq could encourage more sectarian warfare, embolden Shiite Muslim Iran, draw Iraq's Sunni neighbors deeper into the battle between Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq and drain whatever remains of America's credibility in the Middle East. But there's little evidence so far that America's costly four-year war in Iraq or the administration's recent surge of additional U.S. troops has brought the country closer to peace and political stability or prompted Iraq's leaders — who are taking the month of August off — to start doing so themselves.
Things aren't much better, if at all, on Rice's second front: the administration's born-again effort to help forge peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Having mostly ignored the issue, Bush and his aides now must cope with the fact that the Islamist group Hamas, which has long advocated Israel's obliteration, has wrested control of the Gaza Strip from their erstwhile peacemaking partner, secular Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas.
"As much as anything, this is a trip about reassurance," Gates acknowledged.
Gates said that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was among those who asked about a U.S. troop withdrawal. He and Rice sought to assure the Arab countries that the long-term stability of the Persian Gulf would be central to Bush's calculations "in terms of decisions he makes on what happens next in Iraq," Gates said.
But it isn't clear whether they were able to convince the officials in the meetings at Sharm el Sheik, Egypt, that Bush can deliver on his commitments.
Rice and Gates pleaded with the Sunni-led Arab states to work with the Shiite-dominated government of Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki in Baghdad. And Rice said that the Saudi government and other U.S. allies in the region could do more to stop the flow of funds, arms and suicide bombers into Iraq.
The Arab states repeated past pledges to shore up al Maliki's government and halt the infiltration of support for the insurgency. Rice said she was satisfied.
While angered over the Bush administration's missteps in Iraq and terrified of a rapid U.S. troop withdrawal, Arab leaders know that Bush is under pressure from congressional Democrats, along with a growing number of Republicans, to begin withdrawing U.S. troops.
The Arab states also are aware that the Bush administration has less than two years left in office. As Egyptian foreign minister Ahmed Aboul-Gheit put it, the Arab countries want to assist Rice to achieve her Middle East goals in the next 17 months, "which is the life of the administration."
The U.S. internal debate on Iraq will fire up again in mid-September, when a report on whether Iraq has met congressionally mandated benchmarks is due from military commander Gen. David Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker.
On Capitol Hill Tuesday, Adm. Michael Mullen, Gates' nominee to be chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that while security is better, no amount of troops can stabilize Iraq unless there's Iraqi political reconciliation.
"I believe security is critical to providing the government of Iraq the breathing space it needs to work toward political national reconciliation and economic growth, which are themselves critical to a stable Iraq," Mullen said during testimony Tuesday. "Barring that, no amount of troops and no amount of time will make much of a difference."
After meeting in Sharm el Sheik, Egypt, with their counterparts from Egypt, Jordan and six Persian Gulf states, Gates and Rice flew on the defense secretary's plane to Saudi Arabia for a meeting late Tuesday with Saudi King Abdullah.
Gates and Rice came to the Middle East armed with a multibillion-dollar military aid and arms sales package that includes at least $20 billion in weapons sales to Saudi Arabia alone. There are also weapons systems for smaller Persian Gulf emirates and tens of billions of dollars in military assistance to Israel and Egypt.
On her way to the region, Rice insisted that the aid was not a "quid pro quo" for Arab help in stabilizing Iraq or attending the Middle East peace conference that Bush called for in a July 16 speech.
On both counts, Rice got mostly rhetorical support from the eight Arab nations at the Sharm el Sheik meeting. But it remains to be seen whether the rhetoric will translate into action.
In a joint statement Tuesday, the nations said they welcomed Bush's speech and "reiterated their commitment to the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict."
When asked whether she secured commitments from the Gulf states — which don't have diplomatic relations with Israel — to attend Bush's proposed peace, conference, Rice replied: "I didn't ask for one."
In the statement, the Arab states and the United States also said they were united against potential threats such as Iran, but they didn't single Tehran out by name.
Instead, the nations "expressed their steadfast support to any Gulf states in facing external threats to its sovereignty and territorial integrity."
The statement also called for Iran to comply with international inspections of its nuclear facilities.
This was the first time the group specifically mentioned Iran's reported nuclear weapons program. Arab states normally are reluctant to raise the topic without also criticizing Israel's nuclear weapons arsenal. A similar meeting that Rice attended last January ended without an explicit criticism of Iran.
There was less clear-cut agreement about Iraq.
Rice insisted that Maliki's government has proved to be "far less" sectarian in the last few months and that a strong Maliki government was in the region's best interest.
So far, Arab leaders weren't persuaded. They charged that Maliki has strong ties with Iran and has done little to reach out to Sunnis within his own borders. Indeed, Maliki has complained frequently about the U.S. decision to work with and arm some Sunni groups, saying they're a threat to his government.
Before Gates left Washington, Pentagon officials said that he hoped the trip would address regional issues outside of Iraq. But on the first day, he said Mubarak wanted to talk about a possible U.S. withdrawal.
The defense secretary said Arab leaders shouldn't interpret the domestic U.S. debate over troops in Iraq as a sign that the Bush administration is about to cut and run.
In the United States, "what I have begun to hear is more and more of an undertone, even from those who oppose the president's policies, of the need to take into account the consequences if we make a change in our policy, and the dangers inherent in doing it unwisely," Gates said.
(Renee Schoof contributed from Washington.)