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Rice to Press Wealthy Gulf States to Assist Iraq

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, en route to the Gulf at the start of a world-circling diplomatic mission, says she will press wealthy Arab states to assist Iraq, both before and after parliamentary elections being held in five weeks.

Ms. Rice will be attending the multi-national Forum for the Future in Bahrain Saturday, where the focus will be on advancing political and economic reform in the Middle East.

But with a critical set of elections looming in Iraq next month, she will also be trying to enlist more Arab support for both democracy building and reconstruction in Iraq.

In an airborne news conference with reporters en route to the Middle East, Ms. Rice said she will ask the Saudi leadership, with whom she participates in a strategic dialogue in Jeddah Sunday, to use their influence to get fellow Sunni Muslims in Iraq to join the political process.

"Obviously, we want as much Sunni participation as possible in these next elections," she said. "And the Saudis have a lot of contacts, tribal and other contacts, that I would hope they would use and would press the Sunnis to be involved in a constructive way. So, it's very high on my agenda. It's also high on my agenda to discuss with the entire neighborhood what more we can do, once there is a new Iraqi government, to support the needs of the Iraqi people in reconstruction and development."

Ms. Rice's Middle East mission, which will also include talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders early next week, comes in the shadow of Wednesday's terrorist attacks on luxury hotels in the Jordanian capital, Amman.

The secretary called the triple bombing a terrible tragedy that underscores again that there are those willing to attack innocent people without remorse, in pursuit of their extremist ideology.

She said the United States is ready to do whatever it can to assist the Jordanians, whom she described as stalwart fighters in the war against terrorism, though she said she does not rule out paying a condolence visit to Amman on her current trip.

On other issues, Ms. Rice denied a published report Thursday that the United States and three west European allies will make a joint proposal to Iran for curbing its nuclear program in advance of a key meeting in two weeks of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Ms. Rice said the United States is not a party and does not intend to become a party to the negotiations with Iran being conducted by Britain, France and Germany, but is in constant contact with them about ideas they have for advancing the dialogue with Iran.

She expressed hope the European contacts will produce an agreement providing the international community with confidence Iran is not trying to seek a nuclear weapon under cover of a civilian program.

If not, she said, she believes the United States has the votes on the IAEA board to refer the issue to the U.N. Security Council at the time of its own choosing, and is setting no deadlines for the European-led talks.

The Secretary of State said she hoped Israeli, Palestinian and Egyptian officials can conclude an agreement before her arrival in Jerusalem late Sunday that would open the Rafah crossing point between Gaza and Egypt for Palestinian trade and travel.

She will attend observances of the 10th anniversary of the assassination of former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin next week, before continuing her trip in East Asia.