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Rice Ends Middle East Trip With Surprise Visit to Baghdad

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice wound up her tour of the Middle East with an unannounced visit to Baghdad for talks with Iraqi officials. Her visit to the region was aimed at boosting support for moderate Arab leaders.

Secretary Rice's stopover in Baghdad was not previously announced for security reasons.

Her visit came amid increasing insurgent and sectarian violence in Iraq and growing concern among many experts that Iraq is on the brink of, if not already in, a civil war.

According to opinion polls, there is diminishing support for the war among the American public and Iraq has become a major political issue before next month's congressional elections in the United States.

Secretary Rice previously visited Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the West Bank and Israel on a tour aimed mainly to strengthen support for moderate Arab leaders and to urge allies to do more to help re-start Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

In the West Bank city of Ramallah, Rice met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and in Jerusalem she held talks with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and other senior Israeli officials

No details were immediately available on her meetings with the Israelis, but Rice had indicated she would be discussing how to ease restrictions on the movement of goods and people in and out of Palestinian areas, especially the Gaza Strip, which has been closed off for much of the year.

"I will see what I can do to make sure that some of these crossings are open longer and more frequently so that economic activity can return," she said.

Rice made those comments Wednesday after talks with President Abbas in Ramallah.

The Israeli government has said it will re-open the Karni Crossing soon, and U.S. officials have welcomed an Israeli promise to re-open the Rafah crossing at regular intervals during this Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

Rafah is on the Gaza-Egypt border and is the only access for Palestinians to the outside world without going through Israel. Karni is the main commercial crossing point from Gaza to Israel.

Secretary Rice said the United States is very concerned about the humanitarian conditions in the Palestinian territories and would re-double its efforts to help.

Her open praise for President Abbas was meant to shore up support for the moderate, secular Palestinian leader in his power struggle with the militant Islamic group Hamas, which dominates the government.

But her effort did not go over well with the Hamas government. Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniya accused Rice of trying to re-arrange the Middle East to better suit the needs of Israel and Washington.