- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 17, 2005

First lady Laura Bush will leave tomorrow on a solo trip to the Middle East amid a furor in the Muslim world over a Newsweek report that members of the U.S. military desecrated the Koran.

Mrs. Bush will visit Jordan, Israel and Egypt as part of President Bush’s push for democracy in the region, and she will emphasize women’s issues.

“The trip is an opportunity for Mrs. Bush to reinforce our commitment to promoting freedom and supporting women and girls across the Middle East,” White House spokesman Scott McClellan said yesterday. “It will highlight our commitment to working together with the people of the Middle East to build a better future.”

The trip comes at a time of heightened anti-American sentiment that swept the Middle East following the Newsweek report that some interrogators at the U.S. Naval Base Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, flushed a Koran down the toilet. The magazine has retracted the story, but at least 15 persons died after riots.

Mrs. Bush will first go to Jordan, where on Saturday she will address the World Economic Forum at the Dead Sea as part of a three-day session titled “Seizing the Moment,” which the organization says focuses on “efforts to capitalize upon the current climate of change and opportunity.”

Also that day, she will meet with Queen Rania, who has backed measures to advance women’s rights, and tour a U.S. government-supported school and a foundation helping poor women get jobs.

On Sunday in Israel, the first lady will visit Jewish and Muslim historic sites, meet with the wife of Israeli President Moshe Katsav, and make remarks concerning women’s rights and empowerment. She will also visit Jericho, a West Bank town that was given by the Israelis to the Palestinians in March.

On Monday and Tuesday, Mrs. Bush will travel to Egypt and is scheduled to visit a girls school with Egyptian first lady Suzanne Mubarak, attend a taping of an Egyptian children’s television show and visit the pyramids south of Cairo. She is also expected to visit Alexandria and deliver a speech to Egyptian community leaders.

Mrs. Bush’s most recent solo international trip was to Kabul, Afghanistan, in March — a six-hour visit highlighting progress made by women in that nation.

The White House also announced yesterday that Mr. Bush will meet May 26 with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas at the White House. It will be Mr. Abbas’ first visit to the Oval Office as leader of the Palestinian Authority and comes amid new hope of a revived Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

“The United States remains committed to the vision of two states, Israel and Palestine, living side-by-side in peace and security,” Mr. McClellan said.

He said the two would discuss bilateral and regional issues, including Israel’s planned pullback from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank.

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