Secertary of State Condoleezza Rice leaves Washington Friday on a week-long trip to the Middle East and Europe. She'll try to help assure a peaceful Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, and promote Middle Eastern democracy in a policy speech next Monday in Cairo.
Ms. Rice has been dispatched to the Middle East by President Bush to meet Israeli and Palestinian leaders on the Gaza withdrawal, which the administration hopes will be a catalyst for renewed progress on the international road map to Middle East peace.
But she also plans stops in Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, where in Cairo next Monday she delivers the keynote speech of the trip renewing the administration's campaign for Middle East political reform.
Ms. Rice called off a stop in Egypt earlier this year in what was seen as a protest of the Hosni Mubarak government's crackdown on an opposition leader.
But Mr. Mubarak has since cleared the way for multi-party presidential elections, a departure from a system that was essentially one-party rule.
The Mubarak reforms have been faulted by critics who say the rules are too restrictive. But at a news conference here on the eve of her departure, Ms. Rice said they do represent progress. "Contested presidential elections is an important step for a country that has not had them before. It is also important that the Egyptian government recognizes that a lot of people are going to be watching what happens in these elections. A lot of people are going to be watching whether or not there is access to the government-controlled press for people who run for office. There will be, hopefully, international observers there to watch the electoral process. And an atmosphere should be created in which those who are running for office feel that they can freely contest for the presidency," he said.
Ms. Rice said under questioning the revamped election in September in which Mr. Mubarak is expected to win a fifth term in office, is not in itself enough, but she said democratization is not a single event.
The Secretary's trip, which will include an international conference to support Iraq next Wednesday in Brussels, comes amid opinion polls indicating sagging U.S. public support for American military involvement in Iraq.
Ms. Rice insisted that strides is being made in democracy-building in Iraq and in creating effective Iraqi security forces, and while declining to give a time-line, she said that in the long-term the process will be an Iraqi, not an American undertaking. "It is a very different Middle east with Saddam Hussein gone, and now we're in the process of trying to help the Iraqis to put in place a viable and democratic state on the ruins of that old tyranny. Now I do think that we owe it to the American people to say again and again that this is not going to be an American enterprise for the long-term. This is going to be an Iraqi enterprise, whether you talk about who's going to provide security, or who's going to be involved in the politics, it will be Iraqi," he said.
On other Middle East issues, Secretary Rice said the United States had not changed its view of the radical Palestinian group Hamas, which is listed by the State Department as a terrorist group, and has no political contacts with it.
Reports that European diplomats have had meetings with Hamas, which has political and armed elements, have drawn sharp Israeli protests.
Ms. Rice said she preferred to let the democratically-elected Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas deal with what she termed contradictions in Palestinian politics, and endorsed his stand that the Palestinian Authority should have the only armed forces in the areas it controls.
Under questioning, the Secretary also said the United States has had very difficult discussions with Israel over its military dealings with China. She said Israel has a responsibility to be sensitive to American concerns that weapons sales to China might affect the regional military balance.
During the Clinton administration, U.S pressure prompted Israel to call off a planned sale of an airborne command-and-control system to China. The United States is most recently said to be concerned about Israeli sales to China of spare parts for advanced drone aircraft capable of attacking ground anti-aircraft systems.
Without being specific about the weapons at issue, Ms. Rice said she thinks Israel now understands the seriousness with which the United States views the matter and that talks will continue.