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Rice to visit Europe, Middle East

WASHINGTON—Sending an important diplomatic signal on her first full day in office, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced Thursday that she'll travel to Europe and the Middle East next week to attempt a new start in relations with European allies and to nurture an Israeli-Palestinian detente.

Rice's eight-day, nine-country trip appears to provide the first major test of whether President Bush, who was widely criticized abroad for a unilateral first-term foreign policy, will adopt a more cooperative approach in his second term.

The State Department said Rice would visit eight European countries, plus Israel and the West Bank, beginning next Thursday.

Her stops include France and Germany, which bitterly opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq and which Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld once derided as "old Europe."

The trip's major goals include persuading Europeans to expand training of Iraqi security forces after Sunday's parliamentary elections, which is the key to Bush's exit strategy; forging a common U.S.-European position on Iran's nuclear program; and exploiting a rare moment of Middle East opportunity after the recent election of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Rice "will work to identify a common agenda for 2005 with our European partners and our partners in the Middle East, an agenda of fighting terrorism, proliferation, disease and poverty as we support democracy in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere," department spokesman Richard Boucher said.

Rice precedes Bush, who will travel to Europe from Feb. 22 to 25.

The White House faces major hurdles in improving relations with Europe, and it's unclear how far Bush is willing to go to do so.

He and U.S. foreign policies are widely unpopular among the European public. European leaders are much more eager to pursue diplomacy with Iran and want Washington to adopt a more balanced role between Israel and the Arab world.

Nor is it yet clear how much influence Rice will have relative to Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney, who frequently have derided the value of international cooperation.

In Paris, Rice will meet with French President Jacques Chirac and will deliver a major speech on relations with Europe, U.S. and European diplomats said.

"Her approach is to remind people of our common agenda," a senior State Department official said, but "not to apologize for our interests or pursuit of our interests."

Rice told the French magazine Le Figaro, in an interview to be published Saturday, that the mounting crisis over Iran's suspected ambitions for nuclear weapons "is something we can solve through diplomacy."

In the Middle East, Abbas has taken steps to rein in armed militants, prompting a positive response from Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Israel hasn't yet responded to Palestinian calls for a formal cease-fire.

David Satterfield, a top State Department Middle East specialist, told a Washington audience Thursday: "We're at a moment ... which offers the greatest opportunity in what has been a very sad litany of hopelessness and despair over the course of the past four years."

The senior State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Rice would assess the chances for progress in the Middle East rather than bring significant new U.S. peace proposals.

Rice also is to attend a meeting March 1 in London on the Palestinian issue.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair "believes that the building blocks can be put in place to reinvigorate the peace process," said British Embassy spokesman P.J. Johnston. Among those, he said, are "clear indications" from the United States that Bush will make it a priority.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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