With a new Palestinian cabinet in place, the Bush administration is beginning a stepped up effort at Middle East diplomacy based on the international "road map" to an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord. Secretary of State Colin Powell leaves late Wednesday on his first trip to the region in a year.
Mr. Powell had originally planned a wide-ranging Middle East trip to launch the road map. But he has now decided to break the journey in two, and leave stops in Israel and the Palestinian areas until a second trip, later in May, to give the new Palestinian government time to settle in.
He will travel to Spain, Albania, Syria and Lebanon on the initial trip from Thursday to Saturday to discuss both efforts to advance Arab-Israeli peace and moves to establish a representative democracy in Iraq.
Mr. Powell told Senators Tuesday he hopes the Syrian government will come to grips with the fundamental change in the region resulting from the Iraq war and the new reformist Palestinian cabinet, and will assist in the peace process.
"I hope the Syrians will recognize that they have a role to play in all of this, as we move toward a comprehensive solution that must include Syria and Lebanon," he said. "And so I think these two changed elements fundamentally should reshape its policies, and I hope I have a full, candid and open discussion with President Bashar Assad about this."
U.S. relations with Syria had reached a near-crisis point earlier this month with U.S. officials accusing Syria of allowing Arab war volunteers the cross into Iraq and of giving haven to fugitive Iraqi leaders.
But tensions have subsided greatly since Syria announced it had sealed the border and the White House said Syria was being responsive to U.S. concerns.
Mr. Powell told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee President Bush is committed to putting the "full weight" of his office behind the road map, which is aimed at a two-state solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict within three years.
He expressed satisfaction that Mr. Abbas, a relative moderate within the Palestinian movement, had prevailed in his struggle with Yasser Arafat for an empowered cabinet. But he made clear the United States expects early and effective action by the new government against terrorism.
"I hope the new prime minister will speak out immediately and clearly about terrorism and about violence," he said. "And I think that with Mohammed Dahlan as his new minister of state without portfolio but for security matters, he will act quickly and aggressively to work with Israeli authorities and bring the situation under control."
U.S. officials say they expect the "road map" to be officially conveyed to the parties Wednesday after the new Palestinian prime minister is sworn into office.
Mr. Powell is expected to have more talks about the peace plan Thursday when he visits Madrid, site of the first meeting a year ago of the international "quartet" on the Middle East - the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations - which produced the peace plan.
In the Albanian capital, Tirana, Friday, the secretary of state will take part in the signing of the U.S.-Adriatic Charter along with officials of Albania, Macedonia and Croatia. A spokesman here said the charter underlines U.S. support for the three Balkans countries' aspirations for integration into Euro-Atlantic institutions, especially NATO.