Rice to Send 2 Senior Envoys to Mideast

In a step toward resuming U.S. peacemaking efforts in the Mideast, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will send two senior envoys to the region on Tuesday even amid uncertainty about stricken Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Assistant Secretary of State David Welch and Elliott Abrams of President Bush's national security council staff, will look into arrangements for a Palestinian election Jan. 25 among other issues on the Mideast agenda.

They were to have met last week with Sharon's top advisers, but Welch and Abrams postponed their trip after the prime minister suffered a second, and devastating, stroke.

Rice conferred Monday by telephone with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and European officials about the situation in the region, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said.

Besides preparations for the elections, Welch and Abrams will talk to Israeli and Palestinian officials also about security issues and travel and other difficulties the Palestinians have in their daily lives, McCormack said.

Rice also discussed these issues with Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian leader, in a telephone conversation Sunday.

The United Nations, the European Union and Russia are joined with the United States in promoting a roadmap or blueprint for peacemaking with the two sides.

The Israeli government, meanwhile, took a conciliatory step by permitting Palestinian politicians to campaign in Jerusalem, reversing a ban imposed out of concern that Hamas, the Palestinian group that has killed hundreds of Israelis in terror attacks, would be participating.

Hamas is expected to make a strong showing in the election, and has not been disarmed by Abbas and the Palestinian Authority despite repeated appeals by Israel and the Bush administration.

McCormack reiterated the State Department's view that the issue of voting in Jerusalem, where the Palestinians hope to establish a capital, can be resolved as it has been in the past.

Last week, with violence on the upsurge in Gaza, which Sharon turned over to the Palestinians, Rice sent Maj. Gen. Keith Dayton, the U.S. security coordinator, back to the region to try to stabilize the area.

Still, the Bush administration is saying little publicly about how it intends to fan flickering Mideast peace hopes if Sharon remains incapacitated.