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Armitage Travels to Middle East to Discuss Iraq

The Bush administration is sending Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage to Turkey, Jordan and Syria later this week on a mission partly aimed at helping improve prospects for next month's Iraqi elections. The United States accuses Syria of harboring officials of the former Saddam Hussein regime.

The mission to the Middle East could be the last before Mr. Armitage and Secretary of State Colin Powell step down next month before the start of President Bush's second term.

Officials here say Mr. Armitage will be appealing to officials in the three countries, which have Sunni Muslim majorities, to do what they can to persuade Iraqi Sunnis to take part in next month's elections.

Iraqi Sunnis formed the political base of Saddam Hussein, and many now fear the January 30 elections for a Transitional National Assembly will be a vehicle for the assumption of power by majority Iraqi Shiites.

U.S. officials meanwhile are concerned that a low turnout by Sunnis, some of whom say they will boycott the elections, will undermine the credibility of the election process

In a series of Tuesday-morning television interviews, Secretary Powell said the United States is urging friends in the region to talk to Iraqi Sunni leaders, and encourage them to get their followers to come out and vote, even if there is danger associated with it because of the insurgency.

Mr. Powell said Iraqis want a freely elected government and that this is not a time, as he put it, to let tyrants and the terrorists take us back to the past.

At a news briefing, State Department Deputy Spokesman Adam Ereli said the record of Syria on Iraq has been mixed, with the United States crediting the Damascus government with tightening controls on its border with Iraq somewhat.

But the spokesman said more needs to be done, especially against former members of Saddam Hussein's government who the United States believes are operating from Syria.

"The continued presence of former regime elements in Syria who are working, we believe to the detriment of Iraq, and in support of the insurgency, is a problem and it's a problem that we think Syria needs to act to stop," he said.

A diplomat who spoke to reporters here said the United States considers Syrian help to the insurgency, however indirect, to be a major problem. He said one purpose of the Armitage mission will be to keep the heat, and the spotlight, on the Damascus government.

Mr. Armitage will be accompanied to Syria and Jordan by William Burns, the Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs.

For security reasons no details of their itinerary were given, though reports from Turkey said the Deputy Secretary would arrive there next Sunday for meetings with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and other officials.