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Rice is likely to face tough going on her latest Middle East trip

WASHINGTON—Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who received a rough reception on Capitol Hill this week as she tried to sell President Bush's new plan for Iraq, left Friday for the Middle East, where the going is likely to be no easier.

Rice has set three goals for her trip, and each presents a daunting challenge: to gain greater Arab support for Bush's Iraq plan; to build a coalition against the growing regional power of Iran, and to nudge Israel and the Palestinians toward peace.

Bush rejected the advice of a bipartisan panel that he engage with Iran and Syria to help stabilize Iraq. The president's address to the nation barely mentioned the Arab-Israeli conflict, which the panel's leaders, former Secretary of State James A. Baker III and former Rep. Lee Hamilton, argue is at the core of U.S. troubles in the region.

"The president, instead of opting for engagement with Syria or Iran . . . escalated, I guess, or pushed up the confrontational aspects of it," Hamilton said Friday. He was referring to Bush's pledge to more aggressively counter interference in Iraq from Damascus and Tehran.

"The current approach is not working. We've tried to isolate and pressure Iran and Syria for a good many years. We have to ask ourselves what that course of action has gotten us," he told reporters during a conference call.

Rice plans stops in Israel, the Palestinian territories, Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, before heading home through Germany and the United Kingdom.

At each stop in the Middle East, she is likely to repeat her favorite argument: that the region faces a "clarifying moment" as it teeters between the forces of moderation and the forces of terrorism and instability, and that U.S. allies need to make a choice.

But moderate Arab states don't see things the same way, viewing the Middle East's upheavals instead through a sectarian lens.

Sunni Muslim leaders in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan appear terrified at the prospect of a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq and all-out civil war there. But they are cool to Shiite-dominated rule in Iraq.

"There's a great deal of reticence," acknowledged a senior administration official. "They're concerned about what they may be supporting." The official insisted on anonymity to discuss diplomatic strategies.

Rice will argue that Bush's new Iraq strategy, which includes 21,500 more troops and almost $1.2 billion in additional economic aid, marks a major new commitment to Iraq, and that Iraq's neighbors should step up their own support.

But a former assistant secretary of state, Edward S. Walker Jr., said Iraq's Arab neighbors are likely to offer only rhetorical and some financial support. "Beyond that, they've got their own constituents to worry about, which are Sunnis," he said.

Rice will meet on Tuesday in Kuwait City with counterparts from six Arab countries that border the Persian Gulf, as well as Egypt and Jordan.

A major focus is expected to be Iran, whose growing influence in Iraq and Lebanon, surging self-confidence and suspected nuclear weapons program has alarmed most Arab governments.

Ironically, that view puts the Arab sheikdoms and Israel in the same camp.

"What we need to have with the region is a solid understanding of how we address the geopolitical challenge that Iran's overconfidence presents," the senior administration official said.

But cautious Arab leaders appear to be hedging their bets on Iran, unwilling to confront it directly, partly out of concern that the United States does not have a coherent plan for dealing with the region. They want Washington in return to give a greater commitment to address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Rice plans to meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, pressing him to assert authority over Palestinian security forces. She will also meet with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

But no breakthroughs are expected.

Both Abbas and Olmert are politically weak, Walker noted. "If you we're the Palestinians and you were reading the president's speech, where was the Palestinian issue?" he added. "It's just very hard to see how people can help us if we're not willing to take the lead."

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(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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