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Rice to Visit Middle East, Asia in 12-Day Trip

The State Department says Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will leave next week on a trip to the Middle East, the Gulf Region, and East Asia spanning 12 days. She'll try to prod Israel and the Palestinians to make progress on border-crossing and economic issues following the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza.

The aftermath of Israel's Gaza disengagement has been deeply disappointing to U.S. officials, with progress on peace-making halted by an October 26th suicide bombing and retaliatory Israeli attacks on Palestinian radicals in the West bank and Gaza.

Officials say Ms. Rice, in talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders will try to steer the agenda back to the Middle East peace "road map," by pressing the Palestinian authority to crack down on armed extremists, and getting Israel to ease curbs on Palestinian movement and economic activity.

Secretary Rice begins the trip, the longest of her tenure as Secretary of State thus far, with stops in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia focusing on security and political reform.

She then goes to Jerusalem to begin the meetings with Israelis and Palestinians that will continue contacts by James Wolfensohn, envoy of the international Quartet on the Middle East, and by Ms. Rice herself, who met in Washington Wednesday with Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz.

Briefing reporters, State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack said the immediate U.S. focus is getting an agreement opening the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt, so that Palestinians in Gaza have an outlet for trade and travel. "Yesterday there was a good discussion with Mr. Mofaz about steps that the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority, along with the Egyptian government and Mr. Wolfensohn, are taking to work out a deal that is acceptable to all parties involved regarding the Rafah crossings, and those crossing between the Gaza Strip and Egypt. I think the sides are making good progress in those areas, but still there are some remaining issues, I think technical issues, to be worked out," he said.

Ms. Rice will also attend observances of the 10th anniversary of the assassination of former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and make a Middle East policy speech in Jerusalem.

In Bahrain, she is to participate in the second annual "Forum for the Future," a ministerial level meeting bringing together officials of the Middle East, North Africa and the Group of Eight industrialized countries and focusing on regional political reform.

In Saudi Arabia, she'll attend the first meeting of the U.S.-Saudi Strategic Dialogue committee.