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Rice Hails 'Expansion of Liberty' in Muslim World, Faults Syria

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Saturday U.S.-led efforts to promote political reform in the Muslim world have produced major gains in the past year. But at a regional conference on reform, in Bahrain, she faulted Syria for human rights abuses.

Ms. Rice's appearance at the 36-nation Forum for the Future came amid tension between Washington and Damascus over, among other things, U.S. charges that Syria has allowed the transit of Islamic militants through its territory to join the insurgency in Iraq.

With Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Shara present in the hall, the secretary of state singled out the Damascus government for criticism in an otherwise upbeat assessment of political trends in the region.

Ms. Rice said that since the first Forum for the Future a year ago in Rabat, there has been a "tremendous expansion of liberty" in the broader Middle East region, underscored by two sets of democratic elections in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

"The Palestinian people have elected a leader who openly calls for peace with Israel, and if we can make progress on the Road Map, the establishment of a Palestinian state should be within our sights," she said. " For the first time, Egypt's presidential election was a multi-party competition, Kuwaiti women have gained the right to vote, and one million citizens in Lebanon have demanded and won their independence from Syrian domination."

Ms. Rice said the United States supports the Syrian peoples' aspirations for liberty, democracy and justice, and wants to see an end to arbitrary detentions of democratic and human rights activists.

She said these include prisoners on conscience detained after the so-called "Damascus Spring," a period of political and social debate that began after the death of Syrian President Hafez Assad in June 2000, but later was suppressed by the government of his son, Bashar.

She also cited the case of Kamal Labwani, a Syrian democratic activist and former political prisoner, who was jailed again earlier this month on his return to Damascus following a visit to Europe and the United States.

Ms. Rice later joined other participants in the Forum for the Future, 25 Middle east and North African countries, the G-8 Industrialized nations, and Denmark, Spain and Greece, in a ceremony launching two new entities connected with it.

The Foundation for the Future will promote free media and other democratic institutions in the region, and the Fund for the Future, aimed at advancing economic reform by financing small and medium-sized businesses.

The United States is putting up a total of 85 million dollars, more than the half the initial funding for the two bodies.

Sizable contributions are also being made by, among others, Bahrain, Egypt and Morocco.

Ms. Rice flies to Jeddah late Saturday for the inaugural meeting of the U.S.-Saudi Arabian strategic dialogue.

She then goes on to Jerusalem for meetings with Israeli and Palestinian leaders. Before continuing her extended overseas mission in East Asia, she visits Jordan late Monday to express U.S. condolences for last week's terrorist attacks in Amman.

She digressed from scripted remarks at the Forum for the Future to again express outrage over the hotel bombings, which killed from than 50 people including three Americans and citizens of several Gulf states.

She said the attacks make the work of the forum even more urgent, to find an answer to what she termed "ideologies of hatred" that have brought violence to Jordan and other countries taking part in the meeting.