Bush invites Saudi prince to ranch in Texas

President seeks to boost U.S. role in Middle East


DOHA, Qatar - Stepping up the United States' diplomatic involvement in the Middle East, President Bush has invited Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia to his ranch in Texas for top-level talks.

Vice President Dick Cheney delivered the invitation in a meeting Saturday night with the crown prince in Jidda, Saudi Arabia. Yesterday, the Saudis announced that they had accepted. The meeting is expected this spring.

Bush's invitation is the latest indication of the deepening U.S. involvement in Middle East diplomacy. It is a role the White House once approached cautiously, but it has become a prerequisite for the Bush administration's effort to build support in the Arab world for a looming confrontation with President Saddam Hussein of Iraq.

When Cheney's 12-nation trip to the Middle East and Europe was planned last month, Iraq was intended to be one of the main items on the agenda. The U.S. hope was that the vice president would not become enmeshed in Israeli-Palestinian issues.

"This is an ongoing campaign against global terrorism, and that is the nature of these discussions," a senior aide said at the time.

As the Israeli-Palestinian violence has increased, Arab leaders have objected to the Americans' focus on Iraq, emphasizing that efforts to quell the fighting and encourage a Middle East peace settlement needed to come first.

Yesterday, Cheney spoke as if Iraq were just one of many issues, and he acknowledged that the Israeli-Palestinian dispute was the most pressing concern in the region. He will be in the midst of the conflict today when he visits Jerusalem.

"The ongoing conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians is a preoccupation for everybody in this part of the world," Cheney said at a joint news conference with Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa of Bahrain.

The decision to issue a presidential invitation to Abdullah was made before Cheney's trip, U.S. officials said. The purpose is to discuss the U.S. campaign against terrorism - in part, a euphemism for possible action against Iraq - and to promote the Saudi peace initiative. U.S. officials said Bush's Texas ranch was the preferred venue for the meeting because it would foster discussions in an informal setting.

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