Secretary of State Colin Powell acknowledged Friday that the Iraqi prisoner abuse scandal has been "very destructive" to U.S. foreign policy objectives. Mr. Powell has scheduled a trip to Jordan late next week to try to shift attention back to what officials say is a "positive" U.S. agenda in the Middle East.
Mr. Powell will attend the World Economic Forum in Jordan May 15 to meet Palestinian and other Arab officials to discuss the prisoner abuse issue, but also broader regional matters including the political transition in Iraq and reviving the international "road map" to an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord.
Officials had indicated earlier that the secretary would pass up the Jordan conference because of a crush of other business, including a May 14th meeting of foreign ministers of the G8 industrialized nations in Washington.
However, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Mr. Powell decided on Friday to make the quick weekend trip to the Middle East to explain in person what the Bush administration is doing about the Iraqi prisoner affair and to discuss what he described as "a very vast, positive" U.S. agenda for the region.
?We'll be working on that positive agenda in terms of effectuating the transfer of sovereignty in Iraq by June 30 and that's a process that's going well, well underway,? he said. ?Second of all, we're working to advance the Middle East peace process through all the meetings the president has been having, the quartet activity, the secretary had a meeting at the ministerial level with the quartet just this week in New York. Dr. Rice will meet with [Palestinian] Prime Minister Qureia in Berlin on the 17. So we're all continuing to work those issues and move forward.?
President Bush decided to resume U.S. contacts with senior Palestinian officials after his White House meeting Thursday with Jordan's King Abdullah.
National Security adviser Condoleezza Rice is expected to deliver to the Palestinian Prime Minister a message from Mr. Bush underlining the U.S. commitment to a just peace including a stable and prosperous Palestinian state, while also prodding the Palestinian Authority to take stronger steps to fight terrorism.
Mr. Bush came under heavy Arab criticism last month when he embraced Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan for "disengagement" from the Palestinians and said it would be unrealistic to expect that Israel would return to pre-1967 borders under an envisaged peace accord.
In an interview Friday with the French news agency AFP Friday, Secretary Powell said he thinks the Arab world and U.S.-European allies had overcome their "shock" over the Bush endorsement of the Sharon plan, which is to begin with an Israeli withdrawal from Gaza.
Mr. Powell said people are now looking at the Bush-Sharon understandings as an opportunity to break out of a period in which peace efforts were "really going nowhere" and to bring the international "road map" back to life.
The secretary said the photos showing U.S. soldiers abusing Iraqi prisoners had been "very destructive" to U.S. foreign policy interests but that it should not affect the June 30 transfer of power to an Iraqi interim government or the Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts.