On Tuesday, the US vice-president is scheduled to meet Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, officials said on Sunday.

 

No other details of the talks have been publicly released, but an administration official told AFP that "peace and democracy in the Middle East - I think that is going to be the general focus of him going there."

  

In his meetings with the Egyptian and Saudi leaders, Cheney will discuss "key issues of mutual concern relating to President Bush's freedom agenda and the war on terror," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

  

Foreign policy experts expected Cheney to persuade his Arab interlocutors to lend more support to Iraq's first democratically-elected government in decades that will emerge after the 15 December parliamentary election.

 

But the US foreign policy focus has shifted since December as Iran last week resumed its uranium enrichment research, a development that US officials charge is part of Tehran's secret drive to acquire nuclear weapons.

 

It is not immediately clear how much the growing controversy over Iran will affect Cheney's talks with President Mubarak and King Abdullah.

  

But the vice-president said in a radio interview on Wednesday that Iran's nuclear programme "obviously is an increasingly significant problem that the world is going to have to address."