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Wed 16 Jan 2008 10:34 AM

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Bush flys to Egypt for final leg

US president flying into Sharm El-Sheikh on three-hour visit for talks with president Hosni Mubarak.

US president George W. Bush was set to make a three-hour visit to Egypt on Wednesday for talks with president Hosni Mubarak on the last stop of his eight-day visit to the Middle East.

Bush is expected to arrive in the Red Sea resort of Sharm El-Sheikh around midday (1000 GMT) and head straight into talks with his ally Mubarak on a stop that is seen as more protocol than politics.

The lightning visit comes at the end of a tour which has seen the US president try to drum up Arab support for the revived peace process as well as Washington's face-off with Iran.

Relations with Egypt have taken a downturn over Washington's criticism of Egypt's perceived failure to secure its border with the Gaza Strip.

US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice has urged Cairo to do more to stop arms smuggling into the Palestinian territory, which has been under the control of Islamist group Hamas since June.

The US Congress last month froze $100 million in aid until Rice could certify that Cairo was doing enough to stem the arms flow.

Bush was due to arrive from Saudi Arabia after breakfasting with members of the royal family at his friend King Abdullah's ranch outside Riyadh.

The US president used his two-day visit to the world's biggest oil producer to press for increased oil output on world markets to help ease recession fears at home.

He told reporters before a dinner with the king on Tuesday that he planned to discuss "the fact that oil prices are very high, which is tough on our economy".

"And that I would hope, as Opec considers different production levels, that they understand that if their - one of their biggest consumers' economy suffers - it will mean less purchases, less oil and gas sold," he said.

Opec is due to meet in Vienna on February 1 under pressure to calm prices after shrugging off calls to increase output at its last meeting in December.

Saudi Arabia's oil minister Ali Al-Nuaimi later announced: "We will raise production when the market justifies it, this is our policy."

But Bush faced difficulty in convincing his Saudi hosts to wholeheartedly support the twin pillars of his Middle East tour - greater backing from Arab states for the revived Middle East peace process and a willingness to confront the "threat" of Iran.

Saudi foreign minister Saud Al-Faisal gave a cool response to Bush's request, made in Jerusalem last week, that Arab countries "reach out" to Israel to boost the revived Middle East peace talks.

"I don't know what more outreach we can give to the Israelis," the minister told a press conference with Rice.

Al-Faisal, speaking through an interpreter, also said Saudi Arabia had "nothing bad" against its powerful neighbour Iran.

"Iran is a neighbouring country, an important country in the region. Naturally we have nothing bad against Iran," he said.

Saudi Arabia, like other Gulf states, is determined to avoid further conflict in the region after the US-led invasion of Iraq of 2003.

Earlier, Bush told journalists in Riyadh he had asked King Abdullah and other Gulf leaders to do more to "pressure" Iran over its nuclear programme.

"They need to help. They need to make it clear to nations that do business with Iran that if we want to solve this diplomatically, there needs to be pressure on the regime... the hope is that somebody shows up and says, 'we're tired of being isolated and we're tired of the economic deprivation that comes with our desire to enrich'."

Sweetening Bush's visit to Riyadh, the State Department announced that his administration has notified Congress of its intention to sell 900 satellite-guided bombs to Saudi Arabia for around $120 million.

The weapons are the first part of a planned $20 billion deal with the Gulf announced in July, and the notification begins a 30-day period for Congress to raise objections.

The Bush administration says the Saudi deal is needed to counter Iran.

The main thrust of Bush's eight-day visit to the region was to bolster revived peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

But despite his confident prediction in Jerusalem last week of a signed peace treaty within a year, the conflict suffered its deadliest single day of violence in 12 months Tuesday when Israeli troops killed 19 Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.

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