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Two New Leaders Take Office in the Middle East

I’m Steve Ember with IN THE NEWS in VOA Special English.

The Middle East has two new leaders, in Iran and Saudi Arabia.

The new president of Iran is Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The conservative former mayor of Tehran will be fifty years old next year. Iranians elected him in June by a wide majority. On Wednesday, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei confirmed him in office.

Mister Ahmadinejad said he will serve the nation honestly and work to help poor people. And he called for an end to the threat from chemical and biological weapons in the hands of major world powers.

The United States and the European Union want Iran to permanently halt nuclear work that could be used for bombs. Iran says its nuclear program is only for peaceful use for energy.

Mister Ahmadinejad has said that relations with the United States will not cure Iran's problems. The new president is seen as likely to seek new ties with nations such as China, India and South Korea.

Iran is the second largest producer in OPEC, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries. The largest is Saudi Arabia.

There, Crown Prince Abdullah on Monday became the sixth king since nineteen thirty-two. That followed the death of his half-brother, King Fahd.

Abdullah had led the daily operations of the government since nineteen ninety-five, when King Fahd suffered a stroke. The new king is not expected to make any big changes in foreign policy.

President Bush says the United States looks forward to continuing what he called the "close partnership" with Saudi Arabia.

But tensions have grown since the attacks on America on September eleventh, two thousand one. Fifteen of the nineteen al-Qaida hijackers were Saudi. Two years ago, Abdullah ordered action against Islamic militants after attacks inside Saudi Arabia.

There has also been tension over Saudi support for religious schools that teach what critics consider an extreme form of Islam.

There are demands within Saudi Arabia for democratic reform. Earlier this year, Abdullah called for limited direct elections for local councils. Some people think he may call for an elected national assembly and permit women to vote.

For several years, low oil prices and heavy spending led to Saudi budget deficits. With oil prices are high, there is more money to deal with economic problems. The unemployment rate was unofficially estimated last year at twenty-five percent.

The new king has already chosen his half-brother Prince Sultan as crown prince. Abdullah is in his early eighties; the future king is close to eighty. But some diplomats say the next change in power in the royal family might not happen as smoothly as the one this week.

Also this week, there were deadly riots in Khartoum following the death of Sudanese Vice President John Garang in a helicopter crash. He was a former rebel leader in the south. In January he signed a peace agreement with the government after a long civil war.

IN THE NEWS in VOA Special English was written by Nancy Steinbach. I’m Steve Ember.