- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 16, 2006

Karen Hughes, the State Department’s point woman in the drive to improve America’s standing in the Islamic world, begins her third tour of the region today at a time when U.S. policies are under fire in many Muslim nations.

Mrs. Hughes, a longtime confidante of President Bush, will speak at a major gathering of Islamic political, academic and business leaders tomorrow in Doha, Qatar, on the state of U.S.-Muslim relations.

She also will stop in Dubai and the United Arab Emirates and pass through Germany before returning home next week. In addition to addressing the conference, she will meet with students, Arab nongovernmental groups and local community leaders, the State Department said.

The trip coincides with a string of setbacks and public relations reversals in the region for the U.S.

A team of U.N. investigators yesterday called on the Bush administration to shut down the prison for terrorism suspects at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and either release or charge the detainees, the overwhelming number of them Muslims.

The team from the United Nations, which declined to visit the prison, said the handling of the prisoners and the interrogation methods used there amounted to “torture,” a charge rejected by the White House.

Earlier this week, an Australian television network broadcast newly obtained images of apparent abuse of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. troops at Baghdad’s Abu Ghraib prison. The images were broadcast across the region by the Qatar-based Al Jazeera network.

Mr. Bush’s drive for greater democracy in the Muslim world received a blow last month when the militant Islamic group Hamas, whose charter calls for the destruction of Israel, unexpectedly swept elections in the Palestinian territories.

And protests continue across the Muslim world over the publication by European newspapers of Danish cartoons seen as mocking the prophet Muhammad.

Mrs. Hughes, the undersecretary of state for public diplomacy, has kept a low profile in the raging cartoon debate, telling Time magazine last week only that the clash between religious values and freedom of the press “highlights the need for dialogue.”

Mrs. Hughes’ first self-described “listening tour” of the Muslim world in September played to mixed reviews. She heard sharp criticism of the war in Iraq and other U.S. policies on a trip to Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice came under partisan fire at a Senate hearing this week over the administration’s record in reaching out to the Arab and Muslim states.

“This administration seems to have a tin ear when it comes to the Middle East, and that tin ear is making us less safe,” said Sen. Barbara Boxer, California Democrat.

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