Rice Set to Make a Swing Through Middle East

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice makes another trip to the Middle East. She is scheduled to meet with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, in addition to visiting Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

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Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice plans to leave this evening for a weeklong trip to the Middle East and Europe. Her mission: to try to drum up support for Iraq's government. Her diplomatic push is much less than the bipartisan Iraqi Study Group recommended. She's not planning to reach out to Iran and Syria, for instance.

And as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports, Rice is merely testing the waters rather than plunging in to the Baker group's idea to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict.

MICHELE KELEMEN: As she defended the president's Iraq strategy on Capitol Hill, Secretary Rice said the conflict there is prompting, as she put it, a promising new realignment in the Middle East. On the one side, she says, there are the moderates; on the other, extremists. And she includes Iran and Syria in that camp.

Rice said her trip is aimed at rallying support among the moderates, to help Iraq's government, if for no other reason than to counter Iran's growing influence in the region.

Ms. CONDOLEEZA RICE (U.S. State Department): To the degree that we hear from the Saudis and others that their biggest strategic concern is Iran, then they have a very strong incentive to help stabilize Iraq, so that Iraq is indeed a barrier to Iranian influence in the region, not a bridge.

KELEMEN: Her trip includes stops in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and Kuwait -those countries have not only been raising concerns about Iran and Iraq, they'd also like to see Secretary Rice help revive the long dormant Arab-Israeli peace process. She begins her trip this weekend in Jerusalem and Ramallah. Palestinians aren't expecting much, according to Fayyed al-Amari(ph), a former adviser to the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas.

Mr. FAYYED AL-AMARI: We're hearing talk that the administration right now was interested in doing a big push on the Palestinian-Israeli track. I believe it when I see it. I'm not questioning the intentions. I'm questioning the stamina. I'm questioning also the political margin that this administration has right now in getting into another complex foreign policy issue.

KELEMEN: European diplomats who have met with Rice recently say they do think, or at least hope, she is committed to trying to build on a recent meeting between Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. The European Commissioner for External Relations, Benito Ferrero-Waldner, says the European Union wants to revise the group of would-be Middle East peacemakers, the so-called quartet.

Mr. BENITO FERRERO-WALDNER (European Union Commissioner for External Relations): We are ready to do as much as we can to try to facilitate the movement and access between the two sides, stop the violence that is there.

KELEMEN: That is, the fighting between Abbas's Fatah movement and Hamas, which the U.S. considers a terrorist organization and which runs the Palestinian government. U.S. officials have started to downplay expectations for Rice's trip as long as there is no resolution to what they call this internal contradiction in Palestinian politics. They say she mainly wants to see what might be possible.

Members of Congress have been highly critical of her approach. At the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Massachusetts Democrat John Kerry said if the policy is to promote moderates in the region, it's failing in the Palestinian territories, in Lebanon and in Iraq.

Senator JOHN KERRY (Democrat, Massachusetts): Hamas is stronger than at any time previously. Hezbollah is stronger than at any time previously. Iran is stronger than at any time previously. Irag is more of a mess than at any time previously. That is the measure of a failure.

KELEMEN: Republican Chuck Hagel of Nebraska urged Rice to name a high-level envoy to spend the kind of energy needed on the Arab-Israeli issue.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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