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Rice Meets Arab Foreign Ministers in Aswan

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met foreign ministers of four moderate Arab countries in the Egyptian city of Aswan Saturday as she began a new mission aimed at advancing Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts. Rice's trip precedes a key Arab League summit next week in Riyadh. VOA's David Gollust reports from Aswan.

Rice convened here at a Nile River hotel with the foreign ministers of Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the so-called Arab "quartet," as she began her third mission to the region this year.

The United States is looking to its moderate Arab allies to both work to help stabilize Iraq, and help revive the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. The Rice visit comes only a few days before an Arab League summit expected to reaffirm that organization's 2002 Middle East peace initiative.

The plan offered Arab-wide recognition to Israel if it returned to its 1967 borders and reached a two-state solution to the Palestinian issue that allowed the return of Palestinian refugees.

Though Israeli officials have spoken favorably of the plan, they say refugees should only be allowed to return to the envisaged Palestinian state.

In a talk with reporters just before her departure from Washington late Friday, Rice sidestepped questions about whether she would seek changes in the Arab League plan to meet Israeli concerns, saying it is not up to the United States to make such suggestions.

But her spokesman, Sean McCormack, said she would press her Arab colleagues to make clear that the plan is an active initiative, and an incentive for Israel to move ahead toward peace.

"I understand there is a lot of discussion among Arab leaders and Arab foreign ministers about the so-called Arab initiative," he said. "Certainly we would encourage the Arab states to reiterate and underline the fact that that Arab initiative still stands out there as a potential political horizon for the Israel government, as they work on issues with the Palestinians."

Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa, a former Egyptian foreign minister, said Saturday the organization had no intention of modifying the 2002 offer, first advanced by Saudi Arabia.

Secretary Rice is to have talks Sunday with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak that are expected to include human rights issues and a proposed constitutional changes Egyptians are to vote on in a national referendum Monday.

In her talk with reporters in Washington, Rice said she was concerned and disappointed by the initiative, which among other things bars religion-based political parties, and has come under broad attack from human rights and Egyptian opposition groups.

She also said the abbreviated one-week campaign period for the referendum is problematic.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit responded Saturday, dismissing her criticism as unacceptable interference in Egypt's domestic affairs.

On the four-day trip, Rice will also meet separately with Israeli and Palestinian leaders and with Jordan's King Abdullah.