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Rice in Mideast for Talks on Hamas, Iraq


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will be spending much of this week in the Middle East, at a time when several volatile issues are unsettling the region. On the agenda, funding for a Hamas-led Palestinian Authority, the ongoing furor of Danish cartoons depicting the profit Muhammad, the situation in Iraq and Iran's avowed intention to begin enriching uranium.

The Secretary's first stop is Cairo, from where we're joined by NPR's Peter Kenyon. And Peter, we'll be talking with Linda Gradstein in Jerusalem in a few minutes for more about Israel's decision to cut funding to the coming Hamas-led government. But this is clearly a regional issue as well, isn't it? Especially if the Palestinians turn to the Arab neighbors for help?

PETER KENYON reporting:

Well, that's exactly the issue, Renee. On Friday, for example, the Bush Administration asked the Palestinians to give back $50 million in aid that was given well before this recent election. And when Western money disappears, the obvious source of cash will be wealthy Arab states. Frankly, there's no appetite here for what's seen as punishing the Palestinians for electing leaders the White House doesn't like.

On Saturday, Egypt's foreign minister said support for the Palestinian cause is unchanged no matter who forms the next government.

On the other hand, you have to note that there is an interest among many in the region in seeing Hamas evolve from a U.S.-designated terrorist group into a political party. Egypt recently said that Hamas should recognize past agreements with Israel, which of course to some extent means recognizing Israel itself. Now, analysts say Secretary Rice will probably struggle to get some kind of an agreement over how money flows to the Palestinians.

Meanwhile, Hamas official Halad Mashal turned up in Tehran over the weekend saying they're forever grateful, Hamas is, to its longtime backer Iran.

MONTAGNE: And from Cairo the Secretary of State travels to Saudi Arabia, then on to Abu Dhabi and an urgent topic for these talks with the Gulf State leaders is likely to be the Iranian Nuclear Program. What kind of cooperation can she expect on that issue?

KENYON: Well, that will be an interesting question because the prospect of a Shiite nuclear power is very troubling to a number of Gulf States, especially those with majority Sunni populations and that includes of course the Saudis.

Washington is looking now to add Arab backing for its push to isolate Tehran, which is already getting certain support from Europe, Russia and China. The timing's important because the issue goes before the U.N. Security Council next month.

The problem for Arab leaders, though, is how do you carve out your own opposition to Iran's nuclear intentions without appearing to be marching in lockstep with the U.S.? This is a longstanding problem for them because that's the kind of argument, for instance, Islamist opposition parties are using, as they make increasing gains around the region.

MONTAGNE: And then of course there are a host of other very complex issues. The violence and struggle to rebuild in Iraq, the U.S. desire to keep international pressure on Syria over last year's murder of Lebanon's former Prime Minister, and that and others needing attention at a time when anti-Western feelings in the Muslim world are running pretty high.

KENYON: Very high, and much of it, of course, fueled recently by the Danish cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad. Washington has accused Damascus and Tehran in particular of exploiting the issue to distract from their problems. But the Danish foreign minister said over the weekend that in fact it was a boycott of Danish products launched by the Saudis that re-ignited the controversy last month.

Now, there does appear to be more of an effort to calm things, at least in the Middle East. Saudi newspapers have been reprinting the apology by the Danish paper that first ran the cartoons. But there is no question that this uproar is going to make Secretary Rice's job even more difficult than it already is.

MONTAGNE: And where does all this leave the Administration's efforts to spread democracy throughout the Middle East?

KENYON: Well, analysts and officials I talk with say U.S. credibility on this issue, which has been low, is now if anything even lower. You're beginning to hear arguments from secular reformers, people who should be aligned with Washington on this particular issue, they're starting to make the same arguments as the officials in the regimes they're trying to reform. That is that the White House talks up free elections but when they actually happen, the U.S. then turns to countries such as Egypt or Saudi Arabia, where elections aren't nearly as free and fair, for example, as those just held in the Palestinian territories, and ask those states to help undermine the results.

Now, the U.S. argues it's not trying to undermine anyone. It's just trying to promote a two state solution, something that a number of Mid-East countries also support. But reformers say this poor American credibility is really hurting their cause at the moment.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Peter Kenyon speaking from Cairo. Thank you, Peter.

KENYON: You're welcome, Renee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.