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US warns Mideast nations on popular 'discontent'


The United States called on Middle East leaders to heed popular unrest in the region, as key regional ally Israel on Wednesday sent Defense Minister Ehud Barak to Washington for top-level talks.

Despite a push by US officials on Egypt to begin enacting reforms and broaden dialogue with opposition groups, Vice President Omar Suleiman warned against such a "hasty" move that he said would lead to even more unrest.

Barak was to arrive later Wednesday for talks that Israeli media said would center on the unfolding crisis in Egypt, continuing into its third week.

Egypt's pro-democracy campaigners were meanwhile reinforcing their vigil in Cairo's Tahrir Square, a day after the biggest popular rally since the campaign to oust Hosni Mubarak's regime began, with hundreds of thousands of demonstrators flooding central Cairo and towns across the country.

US Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Tuesday he hoped political upheaval in Egypt and Tunisia would serve as a wake-up call for leaders in the region.

Pointing out the uprisings have been a "spontaneous manifestation of discontent," the former CIA director noted the popular grievances were long-standing and told reporters Washington has reached out to governments in the region "about the need to address these concerns."

US Vice President Joe Biden also renewed an appeal for "immediate" and "irreversible" political change in a phone call to his counterpart Suleiman, seen by many as the power behind the throne.

The newly appointed vice president however appeared to reject the call for what he described as "uncalculated and hasty steps," telling a meeting of Egyptian editors that "there will be no ending of the regime, nor a coup, because that means chaos."

Biden had stressed four particular points -- including the need to start "broadening participation in the national dialogue to include a wide range of opposition members," a White House statement said.

And he renewed US calls for Egypt to immediately rescind an emergency law, renewed for two years last May, which Washington says gives the government sweeping powers to restrict basic freedoms.

The White House is insisting it is not easing up on its demands for immediate political change in Cairo as street protests entered a third week demanding the end of President Hosni Mubarak's rule.

President Barack Obama's spokesman Robert Gibbs declined to directly comment on tentative steps by Mubarak to appease opponents, though seemed to hint that protesters saw the moves as falling short.

Gibbs said Washington was firm in its desire to see developments that culminate in free and fair elections, in "a process that takes place without delay and leads to immediate and irreversible results."

The turmoil shaking Egypt has presented a dilemma for the United States, which relies on a number of regimes in the region that back up Washington's foreign policy goals but cling to authoritarian rule.

But in his first public remarks on the crisis, Gates said Washington had long urged Cairo and other allies to respond to the pent-up frustrations of a younger generation.

Referring to a "youth revolt" in the region marked by large numbers of young people without jobs, Gates said Middle Eastern governments especially needed to allay the concerns of the younger generation.

Gates also said it was "critical" that Egypt's government fulfill its promises and move ahead with a democratic transition.

The Pentagon chief praised the role of the Egyptian military as "exemplary" and said the army -- which has longstanding ties to Washington -- had acted with restraint throughout days of protests.