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White House Announces Bush Mideast Itinerary

The White House has announced President Bush's itinerary for his trip to the Middle East in early January. VOA's Paula Wolfson reports it will be his first visit as president to Israel and the West Bank.

The president will make seven stops during the trip: Israel, the West Bank, Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

White House spokeswoman Dana Perino says the president will be in the Middle East from January 8 to the 16, seeking to build on the recent U.S. sponsored peace conference in Annapolis, Maryland.

"This visit will follow up on the progress made in Annapolis in helping Israelis and Palestinians to advance their efforts toward peace and achievement of the president's vision of two democratic states living side by side in peace and security as well as to encourage Israeli and Arab reconciliation," she said.

Perino says the president will reaffirm America's commitment to its allies in the region, and emphasize cooperation in fighting extremism and promoting freedom, peace and security. She says his meetings with regional leaders will also include developments in Iraq, and the challenges posed by Iran.

But Perino makes clear that throughout his stay, President Bush will have one major goal - to help facilitate the peace process now underway between the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority.

"The president has said there are going to be good meetings and bad meetings and the important thing is for the leaders to keep their eye on the big picture," added Perino.

During a briefing for White House reporters, Perino downplayed the likelihood of a three-way meeting during the trip involving President Bush, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. When asked if Mr. Bush might meet with representatives of Hamas, the militant group which controls the Gaza Strip, her response was blunt.

"Hamas is a terrorist organization. He is not going to be talking to them," said Perino.

Perino was also asked about the likelihood President Bush might visit Iraq while in the region. She said she does not anticipate another stop.