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Powell heading to Mideast for talks

Secretary of State Colin Powell heads to the Middle East with a
Secretary of State Colin Powell heads to the Middle East with a "personal commitment" to achieve peace.

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell is leaving Friday for Israel and the West Bank, where he will discuss the newly released "road map" for peace with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, the U.S. State Department said.

Powell is scheduled to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, popularly known as Abu Mazen.

Powell also plans to see leaders in Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. He then will travel to Europe for stops in Russia, Bulgaria and Germany before heading back to Washington on May 16.

Sharon is set to visit the U.S. later this month for talks with President Bush. The White House announced the president would discuss the road map with the Israeli leader.

In a statement, the White House said: "President Bush has invited Ariel Sharon of Israel to visit him in Washington on May 20, 2003. The United States and Israel have a firm friendship and the two leaders will discuss efforts to move ahead trowards a peace settlement between Israelis and Palestinians."

Bush said Thursday that Sharon's visit is a sign of his optimism about the prospect of an Israeli-Palestinian settlement.

"The reason we're going to make progress is that the Palestinian Authority has now got a leader in the prime minister who has renounced violence, and he said he wants to work with us to make the area more secure," Bush said.

Bush said Abbas "understands what we know -- that a peace process will proceed if and when there is a concerted effort to fight violence."

In another optimistic sign for Middle East peace, Sharon said on Israeli TV that he is ready for unconditional peace talks with Syria.

"I am ready to hold negotiations with any Arab nation, including Syria, without preconditions. ...," he said. "The Syrians will of course have demands on us, and we will have for sure demands on them. We are ready to sit and discuss these issues."

Peace talks between Israel and Syria broke down in 2000 over the Golan Heights, a region taken by Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War.

Sharon also made positive remarks about Abbas.

"I know him well. I have met him a number of times," Sharon said, according to the Israeli media. "I have no problem shaking his hand. ... I think he is one of the [Palestinians] who understand it is not possible to defeat Israel with terror. I see him as a partner."

CNN State Department Correspondent Andrea Koppel and Producer Elise Labott contributed to this report.

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