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Rice's busy week in the Mideast

Hamas, Iran and Iraq on agenda as Secretary tours Arab capitals

By Elaine Shannon

rice and saudi prince
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Saudi Prince Saud al-Faisal hold a joint press conference Wednesday.


Middle East

WASHINGTON (TIME) -- Secretary Condoleezza Rice travels to Cairo, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi this week on a mission that has taken on a new urgency in the face of Iran's nuclear defiance and Hamas's assumption of control over the Palestinian parliament.

Rice's first stop in Egypt is a closed-door session with Maj. Gen. Omar Suleiman, head of Egyptian intelligence and an key Arab interlocutor with the Palestinians. Soon after the radical group Hamas stunned the world by winning an upset victory in the January 26, Palestinian parliamentary elections, Sulieman added his voice to those of U.S., European and United Nations leaders in calling on Hamas to recognize Israel, abandon violence and commit to talks aimed at establishing a peaceful Palestinian state.

In her meeting with Suleiman and those that follow with President Hosni Mubarak, Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif and Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit, Rice is expected to urge the Egyptians to follow up by denying aid to the Palestinian Authority until Hamas meets the conditions laid down by the international community. The Palestinians have been receiving about $1.9 billion a year in foreign aid, much of it from the Arab states.

"I would hope that any state that is considering funding a Hamas-led government would think about the implications of that for the Middle East and for the Middle East peace process," Rice told a group of Washington-based Arab journalists last week. "Most of the Arab states are committed to a peace process, including Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states, Egypt, Jordan -- all committed to a peace process. Now, if you're committed to a peace process, you also have to be committed to partners who are prepared to seek peace and I would hope that would be the case."

Saudi funding

Flying on to Riyadh Wednesday, Rice plans to deliver the same message to King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud and Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al Faysal bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud. She is gratified that Saudi leaders, like the Egyptians, have lectured Hamas sternly on their obligations to the peace process. But she wants Saudi Arabia to withhold official foreign aid to the Palestinian Authority until Hamas complies. There's also the separate matter of funding for Hamas. Saudi Arabia stopped funding Hamas through government channels several years ago, but U.S. officials believe the terrorist organization is still receiving large private contributions from rich individuals and Muslim charities in Saudi Arabia and other parts of the Arab world. Rice wants Saudi officials to clamp down on those private financial channels.

"Saudi Arabia has made a lot of progress in terms of tracking terrorist financing and in terms of these private groups," she told Arab journalists. "I think there's still work to do. It's hard. It's not an easy process to know what is happening with so-called or charitable institutions that are really not charitable. They're funding terrorism. But they have measures in place. I think we continue to work to make sure that those measures are getting stronger and that they are robust enough, but it is true that Saudi has taken on this issue much more strongly than they ever had before."

Iranian brinkmanship

Secretary Rice is also looking to strengthen diplomatic pressure on Iran to desist from its defiance on the nuclear issue. In Cairo and Riyadh and during her Thursday session with Persian Gulf ministers gathered in Abu Dhabi for a Gulf Cooperation Council meeting, Rice is seeking to solidify moderate Arab support for U.S. and European efforts to pressure Iran to suspend its quest for a nuclear weapon.

As she prepared for her trip, Rice said she hoped Iran would reassess its defiance once it realized that "the countries that support [Iran] are Syria, Cuba, and Venezuela; not the major Arab states, not any of the European states. This isn't just about the United States. This is about incredible isolation."

Support for Iraq

Rice will also make another pitch for Arab political and financial support of Iraq: "I would hope that Iraq's neighbors are ready now to support Iraq as it moves toward the establishment of a permanent government," she said last week. "The Iraqis are going to need the support of their neighbors. The neighbors have been very helpful, by the way, in working with the Sunnis to get them more involved in the political system and so, I think we'll talk some more about that."

Arab democracy

Even though Islamists have been winning elections in Iraq, the Palestinian territories and Egypt, Rice has sworn not to soft-pedal the touchy subject of President Bush's democracy agenda during this trip. She says she is more convinced than ever that instability in the Middle East will only worsen if politics remain polarized between authoritarian governments and violent extremists, and she is determined to use her own bully pulpit to exhort the region's governments to make a space for non-violent mainstream opposition parties and candidates.

In fact, while in Egypt, she says she intends to express her disappointment that Egyptian leaders postponed municipal elections after the Muslim Brotherhood made a strong showing in parliamentary elections in December. She plans a high-profile meeting in Cairo with Egyptian opposition figures to make the point that, as she put it last week, "Egypt... needs to keep pushing ahead on the democratic course, because it is a great civilization and a great people and it can lead the democratic progress in the Arab world and I would hope that it will do that "

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