Vietnam's prime minister will visit the United States next month, the highest-ranking Vietnamese official to go to there since the end of the Vietnam War. The announcement in Hanoi by a visiting U.S. official came as Washington said it would not impose sanctions on Vietnam over religious freedom.

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick's visit to Hanoi, 30 years after the end of the Vietnam War, brought two pieces of good news for relations between the former enemies.

He extended an official invitation to Prime Minister Phan Van Khai to meet President Bush in Washington on June 21. The State Department meanwhile announced a new agreement with Vietnam that will head off possible sanctions on religious issues.

Mr. Zoellick said Mr. Khai's visit would have special resonance, coming near the 10th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two nations.

"It's a wonderful opportunity in the 10th year of normalization to have the prime minister visit and to review the topics that we discussed today, but also, importantly, to look to the future," he said.

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Robert B. Zoellick, right
Mr. Zoellick reiterated U.S. support for Vietnam's entry into the World Trade Organization, but said there is much work to be done if Hanoi hopes to join this year.

At least 89 Vietnamese laws will have to be amended to comply with WTO rules, and Vietnam must conclude bilateral agreements with all existing members, including the United States.

Mr. Zoellick said American negotiators will hold a new round of bilateral trade negotiations with Vietnam later this month. The United States is now Vietnam's single biggest export market, with some four billion dollars in trade between the two countries.

He also praised Vietnam's steps to improve religious freedom, which have been a major sticking point in diplomatic relations.

The State Department last September placed Vietnam on a blacklist of "countries of particular concern" over religious freedom. The U.S. government is required by law to consider economic sanctions against countries on the list, which also includes North Korea, Burma and Iran.

Since then, however, Hanoi has passed a new law on religion that outlines how illegal Protestant and Buddhist churches might gain official status. It has also agreed to reopen some churches that had been closed, and to stop forcing people to renounce their faith.

Mr. Zoellick said those moves could pave the way to removing Vietnam from the blacklist in the future.

"We consider the steps that the government has taken to be very positive, and we see this as a good trend," he said.

The only country ever removed from the religious freedoms blacklist was Iraq, following the U.S. invasion in 2003. It is unclear when Vietnam might get off the list, but the new agreement will give President Bush and Prime Minister Khai something positive to talk about when they meet next month.