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Last Updated: Saturday, 13 January 2007, 02:55 GMT
Rice seeks Mid-East support on Iraq
By Jonathan Beale
BBC News, Washington

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice
Condoleezza Rice faced off some vitriolic criticism in Washington
Condoleezza Rice probably had one of her worst days in Washington on Thursday when she had to go to Capitol Hill to defend the president's "new way forward" in Iraq.

The US secretary of state faced a tsunami of criticism, not just from Democrats - but Republicans too.

The Republican senator for Nebraska, Chuck Hagel, called it "the worst foreign policy blunder" since Vietnam.

In a BBC interview Condoleezza Rice acknowledges the deep scepticism but still defends the strategy.

She and President Bush have yet to convince Congress or the American public, but she is already on her way to the Middle East to rally support.

There is deep concern among "friendly" Arab states too.

What I really believe is that we are seeing a re-alignment in the Middle East
Condoleezza Rice
US Secretary of State
Democrats say the president's strategy marks an "escalation" in the war. And not just because he wants to send an extra 20,000 US troops to Iraq, but because he has decided to ignore the advice of almost entire political establishment in Washington.

They say he must engage with America's enemies: Iran and Syria.

Instead, the Bush administration is stepping up the pressure - carrying out "search and destroy" operations of any networks in Iraq that supply the insurgents with weapons.

Condoleezza Rice denies this is an "escalation", telling me that it is just "good policy" and describing it as a "reaction" to "unacceptable" Iranian activities.

Mid-East 'changing'

There is no doubt that countries like Saudi Arabia are concerned about the rising influence of Iran.

But the fear there is that the US is only making it worse.

Defence Secretary Robert Gates (l), Condoleezza Rice and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen Peter Pace
Ms Rice has had few allies in outlining Mr Bush's new policy
Ms Rice insists that none of the US' Arab allies believe that talking to Iran is a solution.

So why will countries like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Kuwait and Jordan buy into the president's plan?

Condoleezza Rice says there is a growing recognition after the recent war in Lebanon that a struggle is under way between "moderates" and "reformers" on the one hand and "extremists" and "rejectionists" on the other.

Perhaps wisely, she no longer calls the situation "the birth pains of a new Middle East", as she did in the midst of the war in Lebanon.

But the sentiment is the same.

"What I really believe is that we are seeing a re-alignment in the Middle East between those forces who are extremist and who want to use violence and who want, for example, to stop the emergence of a Palestinian state; who want to overthrow the young Lebanese democracy which got there fairly, and perhaps want to re-establish Syrian influence and dominance in Lebanon - that side of the equation.

"And [then there is] the other side of the equation, where states want to use the political process and want to adhere to the now long history of efforts and contributions to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict."

No breakthrough

But there's the rub.

These very same "moderate" Arab states Ms Rice champions do not believe that the US has engaged in that conflict - which they say is the main source of Arab extremism.

Condoleezza Rice will start her Middle East tour in Jerusalem and Ramallah, an indication that the US is finally trying to address those concerns.

But what can she achieve? There is no sign that she has left Washington with a plan in her pocket.

She says she is going with a "very clear desire and commitment" to accelerate the "road map" agreement.

But with Hamas in the way there is no sign of a breakthrough. Nor is there any sign that she will press Israel hard to negotiate a settlement.

Condoleezza Rice's audience in the Middle East may be just as sceptical as the one she faced in Washington.


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