Powell Heads to Mideast Next Weekend

Secretary of State Colin Powell (search) will fly to Israel next weekend to sound out Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search) and Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas (search) about reopening negotiations for a peace accord aimed at establishing a Palestinian state by 2005.

Powell also is to hold talks in Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, then go to Bulgaria, Germany and Russia. There, Powell will work on preparations for President Bush's meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin (search) at St. Petersburg's 300th anniversary at the end of the month.

He is due to leave late Friday and return to Washington a week later.

Undersecretary of State John Bolton was in Moscow on Monday for preliminary contacts on a wide range of issues, including anti-missile defenses and postwar Iraq.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Yakovenko said Sunday that missile defense would be discussed by the two presidents in the context of the latest U.S.-Russian arms treaty, which is expected to be ratified by the Russian legislature before the St. Petersburg observance.

The treaty, which Putin and Bush signed last May, would have both nations cut their strategic nuclear arsenals by about two-thirds, to 1,700 to 2,200 deployed warheads, by 2012.

The talks with Sharon and Abbas could be critical to whether Bush will make headway toward a Palestinian state and an end to 31 months of violence.

A "road map," or blueprint prepared by the United States, the United Nations, Russia and the European Union is designed to take Israel and the Palestinians step-by-step to an overall accord that also would freeze construction of Jewish homes on the West Bank and scale back settlements already there.

Powell's top assistant on Middle East issues, Assistant Secretary of State William Burns, met Sunday with Sharon and Monday with Abbas and Palestinian Parliament Speaker Ahmed Qureia about how to get started on the plan.

Powell has stressed peace efforts would not get far if violence should continue.

The new Palestinian government, which has won Powell's praise, first will try persuasion rather than force to subdue militant groups, a senior Palestinian official told Burns.

Sharon suggested, however, that he would not accept anything short of a Palestinian crackdown on the militia. "We cannot make compromises when it comes to terror," he said.

The disagreement over how to deal with the militia responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Israelis is emerging as a key sticking point in implementing the "road map" to Palestinian statehood within three years.