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Rice, Gates to Visit Middle East to Bolster Iraqi Government

President Bush is sending Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates on a joint mission to the Middle East early next month to shore up support for the Iraqi government. Rice has postponed a Middle East visit that had been set for next week to accommodate the plan. VOA's David Gollust reports from the State Department.

The unusual joint trip by the State Department and Pentagon chiefs is aimed at bolstering the international standing of Iraq's besieged government, while also attempting to generate political pressure on Iran and Syria to stop actions boosting Iraqi insurgents.

The Bush administration has long been pressing predominately-Sunni Muslim Middle East allies to increase their diplomatic representation in, and material support for, the Shia-led Baghdad government.

State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack said the key administration cabinet members hope the same grouping of Arab states will press Damascus and Tehran to live up to stated commitments made at a conference in Egypt in May to help stabilize Iraq.

"It's a trip intended in part to build on some of what Secretary Rice herself did at Sharm el-Sheikh. That is working with friends and allies in the region in building a structure, if you will, in which Iraq can find its place in the Middle East. It's an opportunity for both of them to talk to friends and allies about where we stand with Iraq, how we see that they may help Iraq and support Iraq in a variety of different ways," he said.

McCormack said it was too soon to discuss a specific itinerary for the Rice-Gates trip, which is expected to cover most of the first week in August. He said Rice may also make separate stops.

The spokesman said that given the envisaged trip, Rice is postponing until then a visit to Jerusalem and Ramallah in the West Bank she had planned for next week, in which she was to have met with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

McCormack also confirmed that for logistical reasons, the secretary has postponed until a later African trip a stop in the Democratic Republic of the Congo she was to have made next week. That still leaves a truncated mission for Rice late next week that includes stops in the Ghanaian capital, Accra, and Lisbon, Portugal.

In Accra, she attends a meeting of sub-Saharan African states participating on the African Growth and Opportunity Act, AGOA, a measure approved by the Congress in 2000 giving African goods duty-free access to the U.S. market.

In Lisbon, she will meet with Portuguese leaders who hold the European Union rotating presidency and possibly also with fellow members of the international Middle East Quartet.