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Rice says U.S. will defend its interest in the Persian Gulf

JERUSALEM—U.S. military moves in the Persian Gulf and raids against Iranian installations in Iraq are meant to demonstrate that the United States will defend its interests against an increasingly aggressive Iran, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Saturday.

Rice made her comments as she began a Middle East tour in which she will try to bolster moderate Arab leaders who increasingly are under threat from both Shiite and Sunni Muslim extremists.

The focus of her diplomacy this week shows how far the United States has been forced to change its aims in the region because the war in Iraq has turned out differently than planned.

President Bush, Rice and others predicted the Iraq invasion would spread democracy throughout the Arab world. Instead, Rice now appears to be playing defense against Iran's emboldened leaders.

Following a new policy laid down by President Bush, U.S. military forces this week detained Iranians in two raids in northern Iraq. Washington says it has evidence that Iranian agents are destabilizing Iraq by constructing a deadly class of roadside bombs and backing Shiite militias.

Bush, who issued fresh warnings to Iran in his Wednesday speech outlining his new Iraq plan, has also ordered a second U.S. aircraft carrier strike group to the Persian Gulf and dispatched Patriot anti-missile batteries to American allies in the Gulf.

Some senators have expressed alarm that the moves could represent a widening of U.S. war aims in the strategic Gulf region.

But Rice said the moves were merely a response to Iranian actions.

"The United States has long, historic interests in the Persian Gulf," Rice said at an appearance with Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. "We have always-president after president after president-sought to have a force posture that makes clear we can defend those interests."

Rice meets with Palestinian and Israeli leaders Sunday and Monday in an effort to lay the groundwork for progress in solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

But she has played down the prospects of quick movement. She told reporters traveling aboard her airplane that, "I'm not coming with a proposal. I'm not coming with a plan" to present to the two sides.

At the appearance with Livni, Rice acknowledged "there are a lot of obstacles" to surmount.

But she said Bush is determined to make progress toward a Palestinian state before he leaves office in two years.

Livni, potentially a future Israeli prime minister, has floated a proposal to flesh out the characteristics of an eventual Palestinian state, in order to strengthen Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Rice did not endorse the idea, but said she was open to considering "all the options."

Complicating Rice's diplomacy is the fact that both Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Abbas are politically weak.

The Bush administration is planning to spend $86 million to train and equip Abbas' security forces, to strengthen him in his power struggle with the militant group Hamas.

Aboard her plane, Rice also told reporters that the United States would not abandon Iraq even if Bush's latest plan fails.

"We're not pulling the plug on Iraq," she said. "I think we'll worry about making Plan A work for now. And obviously, if it doesn't, then you know, we're not going to say, oh my goodness, that didn't work, there's nothing that can be done."

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(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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