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George W. Bush to reaffirm strong ties with Saudi Arabia

ABU DHABI (Reuters) - President George W. Bush heads to Saudi Arabia on Monday to encourage active support for Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking and seek help in maintaining American pressure on Iran.

Bush will spend two nights in the kingdom, after stops in Kuwait, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. He will visit Egypt before heading back to Washington on Wednesday.

His main message for Gulf Arab allies during this trip has been to support peacemaking efforts and curb Iran’s growing influence in the region.

Analysts have said there are signs that Arab allies of the United States are unwilling to shun Iran, pointing as an example to Saudi Arabia’s invitation to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to attend the Haj. He was the first Iranian president to receive an official invitation to the annual Muslim pilgrimage.

The Bush administration said it had heard a different account of that invitation.

“That’s not what we are told, interestingly enough. We are told that Ahmadinejad, as he has done from time to time, invited himself,” a senior administration official said.

“So if someone asks to come, the Saudis’ view is, it’s very difficult for them as the custodian of the two holy mosques, which is the whole point of the Haj, for them to say no,” the official said on condition of anonymity.

Bush has been sounding a warning about Iran as a threat in the region throughout this trip to the Middle East. In a speech in Abu Dhabi on Sunday he declared that “Iran is today the world’s leading state sponsor of terror.”

Bush has also been asking Arab allies to diplomatically and financially support Palestinian leaders involved in peace talks, and to expand relations with Israel.

Saudi Arabia attended a U.S.-sponsored summit in Annapolis, Maryland, last year that was aimed at jump-starting Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts.

Saudi Arabia has avoided contacts with Israelis in international forums and says “normalization” of ties with Israel will only happen with a final peace agreement that includes the return of all occupied Arab land.

ARMS SALE

The Bush administration is expected to notify Congress this week about part of an arms package for Saudi Arabia, but it was unclear for what weapons.

“It’s a big package that we have offered to the Saudis. It actually gets sort of negotiated between us and the Saudis in pieces, and those pieces then get notified to the Congress,” the official said. One element of the arms package will be notified to Congress on Monday, he said.

The administration last year proposed supplying Gulf Arab states with some $20 billion in new weapons, including Joint Direct Attack Munition bomb kits for the Saudis.

It was unclear what may be discussed on the subject of oil prices when Bush meets King Abdullah, or whether that issue would be left mainly to U.S. Energy Secretary Sam Bodman when he visits Saudi Arabia later this month.

Oil prices near $100 per barrel have nearly doubled since Bush, a former oil man, walked arm in arm with King Abdullah, then the crown prince, at his Texas ranch in April 2005.

Washington rarely makes public criticism of Saudi Arabia over its political and human rights record, but Bush spoke out against a Saudi court verdict condemning a gang rape victim to 200 lashes.

King Abdullah issued a pardon to the 19-year-old woman who was blamed for being with an unrelated man when she was kidnapped by seven attackers.

Editing by Richard Williams

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