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Rice Heads to Middle East for Talks on Iraq, Israeli-Palestinian Issue


U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice leaves for the Middle East later Friday for follow-up discussions on President Bush's new Iraq Strategy. She'll urge moderate Arab states to step up support for the Iraqi government and explore prospects for renewed Israel-Palestinian peace efforts. VOA's David Gollust reports from the State Department.

Despite the difficulties in Iraq, Rice says she does not see the Middle East picture as entirely bleak, and that a political "realignment" may be under way in the region of moderate governments alarmed by the extremism of al-Qaida and Iran.

The secretary is to meet Israeli and Palestinian leaders on the first leg of the weeklong trip, then visit Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait for talks focusing on Iraq and the need for moderate Arab states to support the coalition government in Baghdad. She completes the trip with consultations in Berlin and London.

In congressional testimony Thursday on the eve of her trip, Rice said the three-week war with Israel initiated by Lebanon's Iranian-backed Hezbollah militia was a formative experience for traditional U.S. Arab allies:

"I think the reason the realignment is taking place is that there is growing concern about Iran's assertiveness," she said. "And the war in Lebanon this summer really crystallized for the states of the region that Iran's influence through Hezbollah and indeed Iran's increasing efforts to insert itself into the Palestinian-Israeli issue is a real problem for the governments in this region."

Rice is due to meet next week in Kuwait with foreign ministers of the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries along with those of Egypt and Jordan, the so-called GCC-Plus Two grouping.

She said she will urge them to rally around the Iraqi government with, among other things debt relief, training of security forces and higher levels of diplomatic representation in Baghdad.

The bipartisan Baker-Hamilton commission last month urged a new U.S. push on the Israeli-Palestinian front to help bring peace to Iraq.

But the secretary told the House International Relations Committee the Israeli-Palestinian conflict needs to be resolved "on its own terms," and that is hard to imagine a truly different kind of Middle East without a settlement.

The Bush administration is trying to bolster Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in his confrontation with the militant Islamic Hamas movement, whose refusal to accept international terms for peace talks has stalled the process for a year.

In a talk with reporters Friday, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack confirmed the Bush administration has asked Congress to approve an $86 million aid package for Palestinian security forces controlled by Mr. Abbas.

He said the aid would include training, uniforms, communications gear and other forms of non-lethal aid and would not fuel an arms race between forces loyal to Mr. Abbas and those of Hamas.

"We think that we are building up those responsible forces that will help provide security for the Palestinian people that are committed to provide secure entry and exit points," he noted. "These are forces that will also be committed to fighting terror, and to preventing terrorist attacks. They report to President Abbas who we believe is a partner for peace."

The aid plan has drawn expressions of concern from some members of Congress and Middle East analysts, among them former U.S. regional envoy Dennis Ross, who says it reflects a sense in the Bush administration that the only way to change things is through confrontation.

State Department officials have cautioned in advance that no breakthroughs or agreements can be expected from Rice's talks in Jerusalem and Ramallah in the West Bank where she will meet Mr. Abbas.

They have denied press reports that the secretary might propose truncating the 2003 international road map to Middle East peace in order to move to early negotiations on final-status issues, such as the status of Jerusalem and borders for a Palestinian state.

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