Rice faces questions about U.S. push for democracy in Mideast

Knight Ridder

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia – Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is encountering sharp questions as she tries to sell the Bush administration’s policy of promoting democracy in the Middle East.

Arab journalists want Rice to explain how the United States can push elections that brought Hamas, the radical Palestinian group, to power – and then turn around and try to isolate the group.

Arab leaders, at least those in Saudi Arabia and in Egypt, her first stop on a four-day tour, refused to cut off aid to a future Hamas-led government, as Washington had hoped.

And Arab secular opposition leaders in Egypt questioned U.S. support for the authoritarian regime of President Hosni Mubarak.

Rice left Washington on Monday evening with two goals: to sculpt a unified global message to Hamas that it must change course and negotiate peace with Israel, and to get Arab backing for a U.S. policy of confronting newly aggressive Iran.

Instead, she has encountered what appears to be deepening skepticism about U.S. goals and tactics. The questions have been magnified by last month’s seismic shift that brought Hamas, considered a terrorist organization by Washington, to power in a clean, democratic election.

“How is it possible to harmonize the U.S. position as a nation supporting freedom of expression and the right of people to practice democracy with your efforts to curb the will of Hamas and put pressures on other countries in this regard?” an Arab journalist asked Rice at a Wednesday night press conference in Riyadh.

“Why don’t you give Hamas a chance to express the will of people?” the journalist asked, repeating a version of a question Rice faced earlier in Cairo.

Rice replied: “For the United States, Hamas is a terrorist organization. We cannot give funding to a terrorist organization. It’s really that simple.”

The United States has announced that it will cut off all but humanitarian assistance to the Palestinians once Hamas forms a government, unless Hamas changes policies toward Israel. Hamas is sworn to Israel’s destruction.

It could take Hamas a month or more to form a new government.

Rice has found no support for the hard-line U.S. position so far.

Arab governments, whose citizens are deeply sympathetic toward the Palestinians’ struggle, are wary of doing anything that would be seen as punishing them.

Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al Faisal indicated that Saudi Arabia wouldn’t cut off its assistance.

“We wish not to link the international aid to the Palestinian people to considerations other than their dire humanitarian needs,” Saud said at a news conference with Rice. He questioned whether it would be possible to provide basic humanitarian aid while avoiding large-scale development projects, as Washington says it will do.

Rice met for two hours and 20 minutes with Saudi King Abdullah.

A senior U.S. official accompanying Rice said the Saudis said they wouldn’t terminate a monthly $15 million payment that goes to the Palestinian government, via the Arab League. The official requested anonymity to describe private diplomatic exchanges.

The United States and the Saudis, he said, are looking at ways to steer funding to the office of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Abbas was elected last year, but Hamas trounced his Fatah party in January parliamentary elections.

Eight months ago, Rice went to Cairo and announced that the United States, after a half-century of warm ties with Arab autocrats, was putting a premium on political and economic reforms.

Since that time, Islamic groups have surged in polls in Egypt, Iraq and the Palestinian Authority, easily beating weak secular, pro-Western parties.

The bombing of a major Shiite Muslim shrine in Samarra, Iraq, on Wednesday was a fresh reminder of the potential for ethnic conflict as the United States tries to nurture democracy in that country.

Rice emphasized that “the United States remains strongly – and I want to underline strongly – committed to democracy.”

Yet her tone has seemed slightly more muted than in previous months.

She acknowledged “setbacks” and “disappointments” such as those in Egypt, where opposition leader Ayman Nour is jailed and security forces interfered in last fall’s legislative elections.

Several Egyptian activists with whom Rice met in Cairo on Wednesday morning said they were being repressed by Mubarak’s regime. Rice also met with Mubarak and his intelligence chief.

Hala Mostafa, a dissident member of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party, held up for Rice a copy of a state-owned magazine, Rose al Youssef, that attacked liberals by name. The practice is common in Egypt’s state-dominated media.

“If you are really serious about (reform), you should criticize this,” she told Rice.

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