Secretary of State Colin Powell (search) travels to the Middle East amid a growing air of optimism based on the Bush administration's proposed "road map (search)" to peace and the emergence of a Palestinian prime minister who could clamp down on attacks against Israelis.

"I'm encouraged that we may have a fresh start," Powell told reporters before leaving Washington late Friday.

Despite some renewed violence, common in advance of U.S peace missions, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search) was conciliatory, praising Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas as a Palestinian partner for peace.

Powell intends to push the two leaders into unambiguous approval of the "road map," or blueprint, for peacemaking that is keyed to commitments by both Israel and the Palestinians to end 31 months of fighting and to establish a Palestinian state by 2005.

Addressing reporters Friday after a meeting with the emir of Qatar, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, Powell said it was important for both sides to talk to one another. "Let us not go into another endless loop of discussions and negotiations," he said. He acknowledged the process won't be easy.

President Bush sent Powell on his way on an upbeat note.

"Of course, we are going to make progress; yes, we will make progress. Absolutely," Bush said at the White House.

The reason, Bush said, is that the Palestinian Authority has chosen a new prime minister "who has renounced violence."

Bush has tried to marginalize Yasser Arafat, who remains head of the Palestinian Authority. Powell will try, as well. Arafat is not expected to attend Powell's Sunday meeting with Abbas, known also as Abu Mazen, in the West Bank city Ramallah.

By then, Powell will have had two meetings with Sharon in Jerusalem, one Saturday night shortly after Powell arrives from Washington, the other Sunday at the prime minister's office. Powell also will confer with Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz.

Sharon has made an end to violence a condition for peacemaking with the Palestinians. He also has indicated the security situation could improve with Abbas as prime minister and Mohammed Dahlan as the Palestinian interior minister.

On Friday, Palestinians fired six crude rockets from Gaza into Israel, slightly injuring a 10-year-old girl, while Israeli troops demolished eight Palestinian homes near an area where a car bomb exploded earlier.

Powell also is to hold talks in Cairo, Egypt, on Monday with President Hosni Mubarak and Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher; have dinner Monday night in Amman, Jordan, with King Abdullah II; meet Tuesday with Crown Prince Abdullah in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia; then go on to Moscow for talks at the Kremlin.

Among Powell's subjects with the Arabs are how to cut off the financial lifelines of terrorists and to encourage the Palestinians to adopt a more democratic political system.

In Russia, Powell will work on preparations for Bush's summit meeting this month with President Vladimir Putin at St. Petersburg to coincide with the former Russian imperial capital's 300th anniversary June 1. Powell will see Putin and Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov on Wednesday.