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US Won't Attend Racism Conference

The U.S. State Department confirmed Monday that Secretary of State Colin Powell will not attend the United Nations conference on racism that begins Friday.

U.S. officials including President Bush have been strongly hinting for weeks that Secretary Powell was unlikely to attend the racism conference in South Africa because of the efforts of Arab countries that insist on language condemning Israel.

On Monday, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said diplomatic efforts to remove language from the conference documents offensive to Israel have so far failed and that Secretary Powell will not be attending the conference in Durban, South Africa.

"We are working with some others to see to what extent the problems that the president cited last week might be remedied or might be in the process of being remedied," Mr. Boucher explained. "That will certainly be a factor in our decision but at this point it is clear that the secretary will not go to the conference and we haven't made the final decision on the nature and level of our participation, if any."

The decision quickly won praise from the leading pro-Israel lobbying group in the United States, the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC.

"We basically believe that the United States has done the right thing here and we deeply regret the fact that the committee of this conference caved in to the political pressure of those who oppose Israel and seek to undermine her legitimacy to exist," said AIPAC spokesman Ken Bricker. "It is indefensible, from our point of view, to condemn Israel for insisting that the Palestinian leadership honor its commitments and at the same time ignore human rights atrocities committed by countries like Iraq, Sudan and Afghanistan. This is ultimately what is wrong with this conference. It has become a conference for racism, not against it."

But others were quick to condemn the decision as shortsighted and counterproductive.

James Zogby is President of the Arab-American Institute, a lobbying group that represents Arab-American interests around the country.

"This [racism] is at the root of many of the disturbances that are shaking this planet today," he said. "For the United States to absent itself from this discussion is neither a sign of leadership nor, I fear, a sign of maturity. It is wrong. The place to be when you disagree is in the heart of the disagreement so that you can make your point clear. To take the position that if the rules won't be our way, we won't be there at all is simply not a mature leadership position to take and I obviously am deeply disappointed the United States is taking this position. I think it is very wrong."

Another major issue expected to come up for discussion at the conference is a demand by some African nations for reparations for slavery. That is a key issue for many U.S. civil rights groups that had hoped Secretary Powell would attend the conference.

Julian Bond is Chairman of one of the country's oldest civil rights organizations, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, or NAACP.

"We are disappointed that Secretary Powell won't head a high-level delegation. We think it does reflect badly on the United States, that this is an issue of pressing importance to Americans but it is also an issue of pressing importance to people around the globe," Mr. Bond said. "The diaspora from Africa is widespread. The harmful effects of slavery are widespread. We are sorry that these issues have caused them to withdraw and think it a grave mistake."

At his news conference last Friday, President Bush said the reparations issue had apparently been resolved prior to the conference. But he vowed that the United States would not send a representative to the conference as long as other countries, "pick on Israel."