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Rice to Visit Mideast Next Week, Passing Up ASEAN Forum

The State Department confirmed Tuesday that because of Middle East travel plans, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will not attend next week's regional forum with leaders of Southeast Asian countries in Manila. Rice will send her deputy, John Negroponte, to the ASEAN dialogue. VOA's David Gollust reports from the State Department.

Attending the dialogue with the foreign ministers of ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, has been a mid-summer tradition for U.S. secretaries of state in recent years.

But the State Department says Rice will miss the ASEAN regional forum for the second time in three years because of the urgency of her planned mission to the Middle East, partly in tandem with Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

President Bush ordered the unusual joint mission earlier this month in an effort to shore up Arab support for Iraq's besieged government, and to try to generate momentum in Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts following the seizure of the Gaza Strip by the radical Hamas movement.

State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack confirmed Rice's plans at a news briefing, saying she will spend most of next week in the Middle East while sending Deputy Secretary Negroponte to the Manila meetings August 1 and 2.

Rice scrubbed a planned visit to Africa last week because of Middle East consultations in Washington, and her decision to pass up the ASEAN meeting has already prompted editorial criticism and expressions of disappointment in the region.

McCormack said Rice regrets having to alter her travel plans to both regions but that attending to pressing problems in the Middle East is in the interests of the entire world community.

"It's certainly is not intended in any way to diminish our regard for the nations of those two regions, Africa or Southeast Asia," he said. "But sometimes you have to make difficult calls in terms of where, at a particular moment, you focus your attentions. And that's what the Secretary intends to do. She fully expects to travel to Africa and be able to spend some quality time in each of those stops. And I fully expect that she's going to be traveling Southeast Asia sometime between now and the end of her tenure as secretary of state."

Rice and Gates will meet in the Egyptian Sinai resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh with the foreign ministers of Egypt, Jordan and the Gulf Cooperation Council Countries and go on to meet Saudi Arabian officials in Jeddah.

They will urge more active support by the Sunni-Muslim Arab states for Iraq's Shiite-led coalition government and also push for more Arab engagement in Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts.

Administration officials hope moderate Arabs, including those that do not have formal relations with Israel, will attend a conference with Israeli and Palestinian leaders being organized by the United States later this year.

After the visit to Jeddah, Rice will part company with Gates and visit Jerusalem and Ramallah for talks with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Meanwhile Negroponte, a former U.S. ambassador to Manila, will hold talks with senior officials of the Philippines in addition to the ASEAN meetings, and will go on to Tokyo for similar consultations.