- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 19, 2006

Syria condemned U.S. plans to fund opposition groups over the weekend, just as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice begins a Middle East tour to push efforts to spread democracy and counter Iran’s aggressive nuclear policy.

The State Department announced Friday that it had allocated $5 million to unidentified “democratic reformers” in Syria. The money is part of $300 million aimed at promoting reforms in the Middle East and North Africa.

The United States also hascondemned Syria’s purported role in the assassination of Rafik Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister, a year ago.

“It is interference in our internal affairs. We reject it totally,” said Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem.

Miss Rice arrives in Cairo today to meet with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Last week, she said she was “disappointed” that his government had postponed municipal elections, planned to begin in April, for two years.

Egypt is one of United State’s chief targets for its plan to promote democracy in the Middle East.

“The message that I will take to Egypt is that Egypt needs to stay on the democratic course,” Miss Rice said.

She also will ask Egypt to refuse to back new funding for the new Hamas government in Palestine as long as it fails to recognize Israel’s right to exist.

Egypt is one of the few Arab countries to have signed a peace deal with Israel. However, Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa, a former Egyptian foreign minister, was to meet with league members today to try to arrange financing for the Palestinians.

Miss Rice also will travel to Saudi Arabia, continuing her appeal for regional leaders to be tougher with Iran.

Last week, she described the Iranian government as “the central banker to terrorism and a strategic challenge to the United States, to the world, and a destabilizing influence in the Middle East.”

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