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Rice kicks off Mideast tour with Egypt talks
[February 27, 2006]

Rice kicks off Mideast tour with Egypt talks

(Turkish Daily News Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge)U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice started a Middle East tour in Egypt on Tuesday, with a mission to use the influence of Washington's Arab friends over Iran and the Palestinian militant group Hamas

Rice said last week that Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other Arab governments should push Hamas towards recognizing an Israeli right to exist and abandoning the principle of armed struggle.

Hamas won Palestinian parliamentary elections last month and President Mahmoud Abbas asked the group on Tuesday to form a new Cabinet and adopt his own agenda for talks with Israel.

So far Hamas has resisted, arguing that it was elected on a platform which rejects previous agreements with Israel.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who will meet Rice today, has argued that the United States and Israel should give Hamas more time to adapt its political positions.

Unlike Washington and the Israelis, Mubarak also says that Hamas could be the organization best able to reach a peace settlement with the Jewish state.

Egypt, which has a good working relationship with Hamas, also opposes U.S. threats to cut off financial support for the Palestinian Authority, saying this would push Palestinians towards what Mubarak called "extremism".

The Egyptian state news agency MENA said on Monday that Egypt will advise Rice not to make hasty decisions on Hamas.

It quoted a diplomatic source as saying: "Egypt will assert during the talks (with Rice) that it is important to give the Hamas movement a chance and time when it forms the government and not to rush to make judgments on it."

Iran's nuclear program:

Egypt will also tell Rice that the Quartet of international mediators -- the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations -- should work to revive negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians on the basis of carrying out the 2003 Middle East peace plan known as the road map, MENA said.

Neither Hamas nor the Israeli government have shown much enthusiasm for the road map.

In a meeting with Arab journalists last week, Rice recognized that Egypt's contacts with Hamas were useful.

But she added: "I think there's only one reason for contact at this point. That's to make clear what the message is to Hamas and that's the point that we're making to anyone who might have contact with Hamas."

On Iran's nuclear program, Egypt will repeat its position that the Middle East should be a region free of weapons of mass destruction, the agency added. The Egyptian position is diplomatic code for discussing Israel's nuclear program, which the United States has tried to exclude from the agenda.

But Egypt has not had full diplomatic relations with Iran for more than a quarter of a century and has almost no influence over Tehran's policies, diplomats say.

Rice is expected to ask about the Egyptian government's postponement of local elections, widely seen as a way to prevent the Muslim Brotherhood from gaining more influence and as a blow to Washington's campaign for Middle East democracy.

Egypt is trying to persuade Washington to start formal talks on a free trade agreement but Rice said on Friday that the time was not right for such an agreement. Diplomats say the imprisonment of opposition leader Ayman Nour, Mubarak's main rival in elections last year, is one of the obstacles.

Rice was having talks on Tuesday with intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, who handles talks with Hamas, Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif and Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit. Today she leaves for Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

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