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Mideast Allies: "U.S. Go Easy on Egypt"

AMMAN, Jordan - Some of America's Mideast allies have been pressing the Obama administration to go easy on Egypt's embattled leader and allow for a gradual transition of power.

Moderate Arab countries such as Jordan and Saudi Arabia have warned Washington that an abrupt departure of Hosni Mubarak -- the key demand of Egyptian anti-government protesters -- could strengthen militants and destabilize U.S.-backed regimes in the region.

The latest flurry of diplomatic contacts, including dozens of phone conversations between Jordan's King Abdullah II and top U.S. officials, signal growing tensions between the Obama administration and its regional allies since the outbreak of the Egyptian uprising.

Complete Coverage: Egypt in Crisis

The U.S. has urged its Mideast allies to be more responsive to domestic calls for reform that have intensified since protests against the Mubarak regime first erupted on Jan. 25. Arab leaders, in turn, worry Washington will pressure them into making what they consider dangerous concessions.

In recent days, Arab leaders and diplomats have cautioned Washington against pushing for rapid change in Egypt.

Jordan's king told President Barack Obama, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and other U.S. officials that there "must be a quiet and peaceful transition of power in Egypt," a Jordanian official said.

The monarch argued that Egypt's Vice President Omar Suleiman should be allowed to introduce needed reforms before Mubarak's term ends in September, the official said. "We've communicated our message very clearly and we believe that it got through," he added.

Others, like oil powerhouses Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, also cautioned the U.S. that a hasty departure by Mubarak could undermine U.S. interests, said a senior Arab diplomat based in Jordan. Like the Jordanian official, he insisted on anonymity, citing private diplomatic conversations with U.S. officials.

Earlier this week, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, told Obama that the United Arab Emirates is eager to see a smooth transition in Egypt, in line with constitutional requirements.

It's not clear whether the warnings have been heard in Washington.

The Obama administration has sent at times conflicting messages about how it envisions a transfer of power in Egypt, after nearly 30 years of rule by Mubarak, a staunch U.S. ally. The White House has called for immediate steps toward transition, though not Mubarak's resignation. Clinton has said that Mubarak's early departure could actually imperil reforms, citing restraints by Egypt's constitution.

The unrest sweeping parts of the Arab world, starting with mass protests in Tunisia several weeks ago, has placed the U.S. in a bind.

In street protests, Arab youths have called for jobs, a greater political say and the end of military rule, suppression of free speech and clampdowns on regime opponents -- all values advocated by the United States.

Still, concerns of U.S. allies cannot be ignored because they are vital to Washington, like the Saudi oil supplier, the Jordanian partner in the war on terrorism and Israel, which holds significant political sway in U.S. domestic politics.

Concern also is high that rapid change will strengthen Islamist groups. Three decades ago, then U.S. President Jimmy Carter urged another pro-American stalwart -- the shah of Iran -- to reform his autocratic rule, only to see his regime replaced by the Islamic Republic.

More recently, U.S.-supported elections have strengthened Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon, Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip and anti-American radicals in Iraq.

"I don't think the Americans understand yet the disaster they have pushed the Middle East into," said lawmaker Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, Mubarak's longtime friend and a former Israeli Cabinet minister. "If there are elections like the Americans want, I wouldn't be surprised if the Muslim Brotherhood wins a majority," he told Israel's Army Radio.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also cautioned that his country's peace treaty with Egypt could be at risk if Islamists came to power. While relations were often strained over the slow progress in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, Israel says Mubarak maintained a stable situation that allowed it to slash its military spending and troop presence along its border with Egypt.

While Israel declined to discuss what it conveyed to the Americans in the past two weeks, its senior officials were privately critical when Obama pressed Mubarak last week to loosen his grip on power immediately.

Fawaz Gerges, Middle Eastern politics professor at the London School of Economics, labeled Islamist fear a "scare tactic."

"The Islamist threat is a facade used and abused by Mideastern regimes in order to perpetuate their rule," he said.

Gerges said America's Arab allies "have not only resisted the administration's efforts to get Mubarak out, but they also trying to impress the administration on the risks of a swift move toward democracy in the region."

"They're not ready. They're not willing. They have no desire to do that," he said. "They are regimes that do not even know the meaning of the word democracy. They are deeply entrenched in authoritarian power and economic structures."

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