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Secretary of State Rice Says US Wants to Support, not Lead, Mideast Peace Efforts

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice flies to the Middle East later Sunday for her first meetings in the region with Israeli and Palestinian leaders. She says she hopes to lend support to recent progress the parties have made toward restoring a peace process.

Ms Rice will be in the region on the eve of Tuesday's Israeli-Palestinian summit meeting being organized by Egypt.

But she has made clear she will not attend the talks at Sharm el-Sheikh, saying the Bush administration wants to nurture, rather than broker, progress toward a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

She discussed the approach Saturday in a talk with reporters on her plane en route to Ankara.

"The United States wants very much for this to be a process that is the parties' process, that is owned by the parties, that's owned by the regional states," she said. "That's why what Egypt is doing is a very, very welcome development. We have no doubt that we are very involved with all of them at this point, and that when our involvement needs to take on a different character, that we'll do precisely that."

While Ms. Rice pointed to a lower U.S. profile in regional peace-making, she said she does envisage an American role in trying to resolve crises in the peace process she said are inevitable, given the difficulties involved and the likelihood that extremists will try to disrupt diplomacy with acts of terror.

The secretary of state scheduled talks with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in Jerusalem late Sunday and is to meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas Monday at his headquarters in Ramallah in the West Bank.

The Bush administration, which severed most contacts with the Palestinian Authority for two years prior to the death of Yasser Arafat, has now reengaged with it.

In his State-of-the-Union address last week, President Bush said he will ask Congress for $350 million to promote Palestinian political, economic and security reforms.

Ms. Rice, in her travels in recent days, has urged similar commitments from European countries to support efforts to develop a viable Palestinian state that can live in peace alongside Israel.