The decision to dispatch the US special envoy General Anthony Zinni to the Middle East was the price Washington was forced to pay for the tacit compliance of its Arab allies with an eventual offensive on Iraq, diplomats and analysts said yesterday.
President George Bush and vice-president Dick Cheney resisted calls from the Arab world and from US secretary of state, Colin Powell, for direct intervention in the Middle East conflict until an unheralded about-turn on Thursday.
The White House believed that sending the retired marine general to the Middle East for the third time when there was little hope of brokering a ceasefire would undermine US credibility in the region.
But the messages delivered by President Mubarak of Egypt, who met Mr Bush on Tuesday, and by the Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah, who is sponsoring a personal land-for-peace initiative, was that Mr Cheney's Middle East tour next week to pave the way for action against Saddam Hussein, would be met by a wall of resistance if there was no progress in curbing Israeli-Palestinian violence.
"It was made clear that it would be much more helpful for the Cheney trip to have this issue dealt with," an Arab diplomat in Washington said.
The vice-president is due to leave Washington tomorrow on a 10-day 12-nation tour that will take him to London and much of the Middle East. Mr Cheney's original mission was to convince US allies in the region - like Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Kuwait and Jordan - that Iraq's weapons of mass destruction pose a serious threat and that the US is serious about ousting the Baghdad regime, as well as tracking down terrorist threats elsewhere in the Arab world.
Any large-scale US military operation against Iraq would depend on access to bases in the region, such as the Prince Sultan air base in Saudi Arabia, Incirlik in Turkey, and Camp Doha in Kuwait, and all three countries remain anxious over the impact of an Iraqi campaign on their security and internal stability.
Judith Kipper, a Middle East analyst on the Council on Foreign Relations, said the Bush administration "was finally convinced that to send the vice-president to talk about Iraq, the war, etc, while the fires were burning in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, wasn't going to work".
However, the defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, yesterday insisted that a war with Iraq would not be made a hostage of Middle East peace.
Mr Rumsfeld said yesterday: "My whole adult lifetime there have been problems between Israel and the Arabs and Palestinians in that region. It is something that has gone on decade after decade after decade. In the intervening period we've had a number of wars , and I don't know that that is the determinant. "
Since being appointed special envoy, General Zinni, the former head of US Central Command, has traveled to the region twice and both times was obliged to leave open-handed in the face of escalating violence. Critics in the Arab world and in Europe have suggested that part of the reason for his failure lay in the White House's reluctance to put as much pressure on the Israeli government to exercise restraint as it had on the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat.
This week Mr Powell made unusually critical remarks about the Israeli prime minister, Mr Sharon, calling him to rethink his policies and warning that his declaration of war on the Palestinians would not work.
President Bush refused to be drawn on Thursday into explicitly echoing Mr Powell's criticism, but Ms Kipper pointed out that it did not necessarily imply a disagreement.
Instead, the presence of both Mr Powell and Mr Cheney at the president's side as he announced General Zinni's new mission, was intended to portray consensus.
However, neither observers nor diplomats in Washington yesterday knew what sticks and carrots General Zinni would carry in his briefcase when he leaves late next week.
"If he has a strong mandate from the president he can do a lot," Ms Kipper said. "The question is are we ready to say who's doing what, and to name names, and to say there will be consequences."
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002