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Tue 8 Jan 2008 05:16 PM

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Bush begins Middle East tour

US president George W Bush will deliver only speech of Middle Eastern tour in Abu Dhabi.

US president George W Bush will deliver the keynote address of his Middle Eastern tour in Abu Dhabi on January 13.

Bush, who leaves the White House in January 2009, is expected to argue in his speech that achieving security in the region will pave the way for economic and political progress. He is also expected to discuss freedom in the region.

The speech is the only address of his eight-day visit, which aims to push along Middle East peace talks with an eye on creating an independent Palestinian state before Bush leaves office.

The president is attempting to encourage broader Israel-Arab reconciliation, and also to endorse US support for its allies in the region during his visit, according to a White House senior administration official.

National security advisor Stephen Hadley told the AP that Bush’s trip will be an opportunity to reaffirm the enduring commitment of the United States to the security of its friends and allies in the Middle East, especially the Gulf nations.

“We're not looking for headline announcements. What the president's looking for is better understanding of the challenge we face and a commitment to dealing with that challenge,” Hadley said.

It also seeks a united front in the face of the challenges presented by Iran and its nuclear program, he added.

“There's a lot of concern in the region about Iran, not all of it expressed publicly. The president is going to want to go and talk privately and quietly to indicate that we understand the challenge that Iran represents to the region, that our friends and allies in the region can count on our commitment to the region and our continued presence in the region,” said Hadley.

Bush’s meetings begin on Wednesday in Jerusalem with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and President Shimon Peres. On Thursday, Bush travels to the West Bank, an Israeli-occupied Palestinian territory, to see Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad at their headquarters in Ramallah.

Before leaving Israel on Friday for Kuwait, Bush also hears from former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, now the Mideast representative for the so-called Quartet, the United Nations, the European Union, Russia and the United States. Bush also is to lay a wreath at Yad Vashem, Israel's official Holocaust memorial.

In Kuwait, Bush was to speak with Kuwaiti women, and visit with US troops at Camp Arifjan, the logistical hub for the Iraq war near Kuwait City. Bush also will receive an update on the war from General David Petraeus, the top military commander in Iraq, and Ryan Crocker, the US ambassador to Baghdad.

On Saturday, the president travels to Bahrain where he visits members of the US Navy's 5th Fleet on Sunday. He then goes on to Abu Dhabi to deliver his only speech of the trip.

After a brief visit to Dubai on Monday, Bush heads to Saudi Arabia for two nights. Saudi King Abdullah is expected to urge Bush to pressure Israel to halt settlements in Palestinian territories.

The president's last stop of the trip comes Wednesday, when he pays a brief visit to the Red Sea resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt, where he will meet with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak before returning to Washington.

Hadley said that on the trip, the president also wants to urge neighboring Arab states to more enthusiastically support Abbas' government, as well as give debt relief to Iraq and push back against Syrian influence in Lebanon.