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Rice Postpones Asia-Pacific Trip Amid Mideast Uncertainty

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has postponed a trip to Indonesia and Australia, which she was to have begun Saturday, because of uncertainty in the Middle East triggered by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's health crisis. Officials say the travel may be rescheduled for March.

The decision to put off the secretary's six-day Asia-Pacific trip reflects the degree of U.S. concern about the situation in the Middle East, with Mr. Sharon fighting for life after a major stroke.

The Bush administration has made a major political investment in Mr. Sharon's disengagement strategy from Gaza and parts of the West Bank, as a possible catalyst for reviving the international road map to a comprehensive Israeli-Palestinian peace accord.

Speaking to reporters, State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack brushed aside suggestions Ms. Rice had put off her trip, because the death of the Israeli leader might be imminent.

He said she made the decision so that she could be in Washington to monitor the regional situation directly with the rest of her Middle East team.

"When she travels, she travels with her office," he said. "When she works on the road, she's in constant communication with Washington. But just given the physical distances, the time differences, that she thought it was the right decision to stay here in Washington."

Mr. McCormack said Ms. Rice had a brief telephone conversation Friday with acting Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

He said she expressed U.S. solidarity with the Israeli people in a time of difficulty, and conveyed thoughts and prayers for Mr. Sharon's recovery.

On Thursday, because of Mr. Sharon's illness, the Bush administration canceled a planned Middle East trip by two senior envoys, White House Middle East policy chief Elliott Abrams and Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Welch.

However, a separate mission by the administration's new security coordinator for Gaza, Army Major-General Keith Dayton, is going ahead as planned.

General Dayton is working to improve the capability of Palestinian security forces, especially in Gaza, where political violence has cast a shadow over plans for Palestinian legislative elections later this month.

Spokesman McCormack said Secretary Rice also spoke Friday with Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer about rescheduling her visit to Australia for sometime in March. He said the secretary's visit to Indonesia might also occur at that time.

The visits to Indonesia and Australia were to have been Ms. Rice's first to those countries since taking office.

Mr. McCormack said, in place of Ms. Rice, U.S. Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman will head the U.S. delegation to an international conference next week in Sydney on limiting greenhouse gas emissions.