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Middle East: Powell's Trip Aimed At Easing Israeli-Palestinian And Iraq Crises

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell begins a trip to the Middle East tomorrow (23 February), his first since he took office. The trip has a dual focus: easing tensions over the Israeli-Palestinian crisis and finding ways to re-energize sanctions on Iraq. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel looks ahead at Powell's regional tour.

Prague, 22 February 2001 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell is scheduled to make seven stops in a whirlwind four-day tour of the Middle East that begins tomorrow (23 February).

Those stops are Egypt, Israel and the Palestinian territories, Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait.

The extent of Powell's itinerary reflects how much leaders across the region are concerned with two ongoing crises and want to discuss them with the new U.S. secretary of state.

One of these issues is the continuing unrest between Israelis and Palestinians amid the breakdown of their peace process.

Violence there has seen more than 400 people -- mostly Palestinians -- killed since September. And tensions between Israel and the Arab world in general have increased in recent weeks as Ariel Sharon, whom Arabs say touched off the violence by visiting a holy site in Jerusalem, has become Israeli prime minister-elect.

The other issue is how to contain Iraqi President Saddam Hussein without further hardship to sanctions-struck Iraqis.

Many governments in the region and elsewhere are calling for major changes in the international community's strategy toward Baghdad in order to reduce its humanitarian costs. There is also frustration that UN sanctions have not forced Iraq to cooperate with their stated goal, which is to assure Baghdad has no more weapons of mass destruction. Baghdad has now barred arms inspectors from Iraq for more than two years.

There is also increased uneasiness about Washington and London unilaterally containing Iraq by periodic attacks on its military infrastructure, which also can cause civilian casualties.

Analysts say Powell's trip to the Mideast holds little prospect for finding a quick fix to either of these two crises. But it will give the new secretary of state a chance to hear the views of regional leaders as the Bush administration begins the process of formulating its own initiatives.

David Wurmser, a U.S. policy expert at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, says the trip also will give Powell a chance to renew his personal acquaintances with many of the leaders whom he knows from the Gulf War crisis.

"He was in intimate touch with these guys 10 years ago, he knows these people very well, the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, etc. But over the last 10 years this simply hasn't been the thing he has focused on mostly. The first thing he feels he needs to do is to go there and get informed again and up to speed."

Some analysts say that as Powell discusses the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, he mainly will be asking regional leaders to cooperate in trying to reduce tensions until new ways forward can be found in the peace process.

Wurmser says that one reason to ask for patience is that Washington itself needs time to reassess the options.

"[The Americans] are not in a very good position on this whole issue anymore, because we pushed the Israelis and the Israelis pushed themselves to go about as far as they can go, and it led to nothing at the end of the day other than this breakdown in the peace process. The problem is that we are not really in a position anymore where we have much more we can do diplomatically with the peace process."

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said this week that "Powell is not taking a (peace) plan and I wouldn't expect him to come back with one." Instead, the secretary will be pushing to resolve some of the individual issues which are keeping tensions high.

News reports say Powell will press Israel to release more than $50 million in tax revenue it has been withholding from the Palestinians because of the violence. And he will press the Palestinians to halt daily challenges to Israeli security forces.

On Iraq, analysts expect Powell to test for regional support for re-energizing the sanctions by easing restrictions on commercial goods but tightening them for military and related industrial items.

Washington has become increasingly worried in recent months as some countries have resumed flights to Iraq. Many of these flights are without prior approval from the UN sanctions committee and without UN cargo inspections. At the same time, Baghdad actively smuggles oil through Turkey, down the Gulf and, according to some recent news reports, through Syria. In return, Iraq receives hard currency and smuggled goods.

Wurmser says many regional leaders are likely to back the idea of loosening up on trade in exchange for stricter enforcement of sanctions to keep Iraq's military weak. Some see this as a way to help revive Iraq's civilian economy -- as well as help their own -- and some also see it as a way to persuade Baghdad to re-admit UN arms monitors. Wurmser says:

"There may be deals he can cut specifically with certain countries and leaders to try to get them to avoid breaking sanctions. He is not visiting Turkey, although that would have been one logical place to try to see if he could make a deal. He is under pressure by a lot of the sides to go for this option that you hear floating around in Washington a lot, which is reduce sanctions, give up on a lot of sanctions, and try to trade it in to Saddam for his allowing [arms] inspectors to go in."

Wurmser says Powell's trip also may explore regional support for more aggressive policies toward obtaining a change of regime in Iraq. The analyst says that most regional leaders are cautious on this subject.

"What he will be told is that there is not that much support. One thing everybody in the region worries about is that if [the Americans] escalate and don't stick through then they are left holding the bag in a heightened state of confrontation with Saddam."

The Bush administration itself is divided over how much to support the Iraqi opposition in exile in its hopes of toppling Saddam. Proponents of greater support say many governments in the region would back the idea if they were convinced Washington was committed to arming and protecting the opposition effort. But critics say the Iraqi opposition's leadership is too weak for such a task.

As Powell tours the region, he will likely receive his warmest welcome in Kuwait, where he will be a guest of honor at celebrations of the 10th anniversary of the 26 February 1991, end of the Gulf War. But he may encounter street protests in Cairo and Amman, where Washington's support for Israel is widely criticized and sympathy for sanctions-hit Iraqis runs high. It is unclear whether Syria, whose government has strongly condemned last Friday's (16 February) U.S. and British air attacks around Baghdad, will receive Powell or cancel his invitation at the last minute.

Powell's trip to the Mideast will end just as UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and Iraqi Foreign Minister Mohammad Said al-Sahaf begin a scheduled meeting early next week in New York.

Sahaf has said Baghdad will make proposals to break the impasse over weapons inspections. But Iraq has repeatedly insisted it will only discuss readmitting arms inspectors after all sanctions on the country are lifted.