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Obama to Visit Middle East, Europe Next Week

Reports from the Middle East say US Democratic presidential contender Barack Obama will visit both Israel and the West Bank next week as part of a major foreign trip. VOA's Michael Bowman reports, other stops include Iraq, Afghanistan, and several European locations.

The Obama campaign has released few details about the senator's forthcoming itinerary, but Israeli and Palestinian officials say Obama will meet separately with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

His Republican rival, Senator John McCain, took a similar trip to the Middle East and Europe in March, and has regularly visited Iraq since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion to oust Saddam Hussein.

Obama has been a fierce critic of the Bush administration's handling of foreign affairs, especially the Iraq war. Political analyst Larry Sabato, who heads the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, says the upcoming trip is critical for a presidential aspirant with limited foreign policy credentials.

"He is criticizing our [US] policy in Iraq. He needs to see it on the ground, and he has not been there [to Iraq] in years," he said. "It is important that he talk to the world leaders with whom he may very well be dealing come January [if elected president]."

Sabato describes the trip as a high-risk, high-reward opportunity for Obama, who could either quell voters' doubts about his command of foreign policy issues with a strong performance or amplify them with any miscues.

International public opinion polls show Obama with high approval ratings in many countries. Sabato says he expects Obama will get a warm reception at most stops on the trip, particularly in Europe. Foreign leaders will have their own agendas, knowing that they could be meeting with the next president of the United States, according to Sabato.

"They will want to get off on the right foot with him [Obama]," said Sabato. "They will want to impress him. They will want to educate him about bilateral relations, multilateral relations, and some of the issues with which he will have to deal if indeed he does become president."

Monday, Obama reiterated his determination to gradually withdraw US forces from Iraq should he win the election, and refocus US military efforts to target al-Qaida and the Taliban in Afghanistan. In a column in the New York Times newspaper, Obama said he remains convinced that real political progress in Iraq will be achieved only if America places a time limit on the duration of its troop commitment in the country, but admitted that "tactical adjustments" to the strategy may be needed based on advice from US commanders.

John McCain has blasted Obama for opposing last year's US troop surge that many credit for helping bring a fragile stability to Iraq that could pave the way for future troop reductions. McCain has refused to embrace a timetable for withdrawing US forces from Iraq, saying to do so would embolden America's enemies.