DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) _ Vice President Dick Cheney landed in the U.S.-allied Arab monarchy of Oman on Sunday and went directly to talks with its foreign minister, Omani government officials said.
A U.S. embassy spokesman in Oman declined to detail Cheney's plans or the focus of his visit to the sparsely populated oil-producing state, which allows the United States use of four air bases. But an Omani government official said Cheney was to discuss regional security issues, including the U.S. standoff with Iran over its nuclear program. The official, in the capital Muscat, spoke on condition of anonymity because he was unauthorized to speak to the press.
Oman sits across the strategically important Strait of Hormuz from Iran, through which two-fifths of the world's oil passes.
The sultanate allows the United States to use the air bases _ including one just 50 miles from Iran _ for refueling, logistics and storage of pre-positioned military supplies. Little has been revealed publicly about U.S. military ties with the reclusive country, a deeply sensitive topic inside Oman, an isolated country on the southeastern corner of the Arabian peninsula that has been a quiet U.S. military ally for decades.
The country's cooperation with the U.S. military appears to have dwindled over the past few years, but renewed U.S. access to its bases would give a huge boost to any American action on Iran.
``The Omanis are very careful not to associate themselves with American forces. There are major objections to U.S. activities in Oman and they don't want a large visible presence,'' said Mustafa Alani, a Gulf Research Center military analyst.
An Omani Foreign Ministry official said Foreign Minister Yousuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah was to urge U.S. support for an immediate revival of the Palestinian-Israeli peace process.
Cheney's stopover could be seen as an attempt to ratchet up military pressure on Iran ahead of a meeting by the U.N. Security Council that will discuss tightening of sanctions imposed over its disputed nuclear program.
The visit to Oman was Cheney's second during his time as vice president. In March 2002, Cheney toured U.S. installations at the Masirah Island Air Base, which hosted U.S. B-1B bombers, C-130 transports and U.S. Special Forces AC-130 gunships during the war in Afghanistan, according to press and research reports.
Cheney left Australia on Sunday after a three-day visit to thank the government for contributing troops to Iraq and Afghanistan. He had earlier visited Japan and Guam.
A White House spokeswoman said the vice presidential plane had an electrical problem after leaving Australia earlier Sunday. Reporters on the plane said a power surge during the flight disabled the cabin's electrical outlets. The problem was fixed during a planned stop in Singapore.
A Congressional Research Service report said the Pentagon extended U.S. basing rights in 2000 by providing $120 million to Oman to upgrade its al-Musnanah air base, which sits next to the Strait of Hormuz.
CRS reported 550 U.S. troops were based in Oman as recently as 2004. But that number appears to have slipped to around 270 last year, mainly U.S. Air Force and Navy personnel, some of whom are training the Omani air force, according to the Dubai-based Gulf Research Center.
The CRS report said the Air Force maintains access rights to four Oman air bases, al-Musnanah; al-Seeb, just outside the capital Muscat; Thumrait, near the southern coast; and the Masirah Island Air Base, in the Arabian Sea.
Oman's Masirah air base was the staging base for the failed U.S. attempt to rescue 66 American hostages from the former U.S. embassy in Tehran in 1979.
Oman is led by the reclusive Sultan Qaboos, who overthrew his father in 1970. Qaboos has focused on modernizing Oman, but at a slower pace than the frenetic growth transforming neighboring United Arab Emirates and Qatar.