Washington steps up regional diplomacy with high-level visits

US President George W. Bush said Thursday he was sending his diplomatic and defence chiefs to the Middle East next month to shore up support for Iraq’s besieged government.Bush told a White House news conference that the visits by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defence Secretary Robert Gates would also reaffirm US support for democratic reform in the strife-torn region. His announcement came as a new administration report drew a bleak picture of progress by the Baghdad government and accused Iran and Syria of playing a nefarious role in the bloody carnage gripping Iraq.

“We’re also using the tools of diplomacy to strengthen regional and international support for Iraq’s democratic government, so I’m sending Secretary Gates and Secretary Rice to the region in early August,” Bush said.

Rice had been due to head to Israel and the Palestinian territories next week, but that has now been postponed to the end of July to tie in with the early-August trip with Gates, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said.

It will be Rice’s first visit to the region since the abrupt takeover of Gaza by Hamas, which the United States, along with Israel and the European Union, considers a terrorist outfit.

For now, Rice is staying in Washington to keep abreast of an intensifying clamour in Congress for US forces to start pulling out of Iraq, McCormack told reporters.

“Obviously we all know there is a lot of national discussion about Iraq,” he said. Bush, having helped to install former British prime minister Tony Blair as the new envoy for the “Quartet” of Middle East diplomatic powerbrokers, said the United States would remain diplomatically engaged in the region.

“I firmly believe that you’ll see the democracy movement continue to advance throughout the Middle East if the United States doesn’t become isolationist,” he said.

“Condi Rice and Bob Gates will be travelling there in early August to continue to remind our friends and allies that one, we view them as strategic partners, and secondly that we want them to work towards freer societies and to help this Iraqi government survive.

“It’s in their interests that Iraq become a stable partner. And I believe we can achieve that objective.” Bush did not specify which countries would feature on the itinerary of Rice and Gates, but he has been reaching out to Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan to help calm the Sunni-Shiite violence raging in Iraq.

“We have some ideas in mind, but we still need to talk to host countries,” McCormack said.

At a conference on Iraq held in Egypt in May, regional powers including Iran and Syria stressed their intention to halt extremist activities and prevent their territory from being a base for terror operations in Iraq.

But both the neighbouring countries continue to foster bloodshed in Iraq, according to an interim US administration report published Thursday on Bush’s recent “surge” of 30,000 more troops into Iraq.

“As noted, Iran funds extremist groups to promote attacks against coalition and Iraqi forces, and the Iraqi government,” the report said.

“We see little change in Iran’s policy of seeking US defeat through direct financial and material support for attacks against US military and civilians in Iraq,” it said.

“Meanwhile, foreign fighters — especially suicide bombers — continue to use Syrian territory as their main transit route to Iraq,” it added, estimating that “Al Qaeda in Iraq” receives 50-80 suicide bombers each month via Syria.

“Syria can and must do more to shut down these networks.”

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