Cheney starts Mideast tour

Mon Jan 16, 2006 11:04 AM ET

CAIRO (Reuters) - U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney arrived in Egypt on Monday at the start of a brief Middle East tour including Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

In meetings with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia on Tuesday, they will discuss "the president's (President George W. Bush's) freedom agenda and the war on terror," said a statement from Cheney's office.

At the airport in the Saudi capital Riyadh on Tuesday, he will see Lebanese politician Saad al-Hariri, son of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri, added a spokeswoman.

The United States strongly supports the United Nations inquiry into the Hariri assassination in February last year. The investigators have pointed the finger at Syrian intelligence but the Syrian government denies it played any role.

Egypt and Saudi Arabia were to be part of a trip Cheney took in December when he visited Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Oman. But he cut short that tour to fly back to Washington to cast a tiebreaking vote in the U.S. Senate.

Cheney added Kuwait to his itinerary so that he can offer condolences after the death of the emir, Sheikh Jaber al-Ahmad al-Sabah, a spokeswoman said. Sheikh Jaber died on Sunday at 78.

Cheney's office and the U.S. Embassy in Cairo gave only the barest details about Tuesday's meetings with Mubarak and King Abdullah.

Political analysts said the visit was a chance for the Bush administration to bolster ties with two governments which have cooperated with the United States against militant Islamists.

He will discuss key regional issues, such as the January 25 Palestinian election and the impact of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's health crisis on the Middle East peace process.

"He is going to speak for the administration to two very important countries," said Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "The fact that he's going is a sign of the attention that the United States pays to these relationships."

Cheney's meeting with Abdullah, whom Bush hosted at his Texas ranch in April, comes as U.S. officials cite high energy costs as a top economic worry.