Rice will discuss Iranian nuclear program with Europe and Moscow

A nuclear standoff with Iran and the coming constitutional vote in Iraq are among topics for Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's visits with allies in Europe and for a surprise trip to Moscow.

Lebanese politics also are on the agenda Friday when Rice meets in Paris with President Jacques Chirac and French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy. The two nations cooperated last year on a resolutions in the United Nations demanding that Syria bring home its troops and intelligence agents from the territory of its smaller neighbor.

Although Syrian troops left during a spring of political upheaval in Lebanon and under intense international pressure, the United States and its allies say Syria still is trying to influence politics under a newly elected government.

Rice will see Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, and his foreign minister on Saturday in Moscow for talks on several Middle East issues, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Thursday. Rice is nearing the close of an eight-nation zigzag across Central Asia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, France, Russia and Britain.

Russia handed the United States and European partners a subtle diplomatic victory on the Iran question last month when it abstained rather than vote no on an International Atomic Energy Agency resolution that set up possible U.N. punishment over a nuclear energy program the United States insists is a cover for bomb making.

Russia is an Iranian ally and is helping the Tehran regime set up part of its declared civilian nuclear energy program. The United States is not trying to shut down the partnership but wants Russia's cooperation ahead of another meeting in November of the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov dismissed speculation Thursday that Moscow might join talks between Iran and European negotiators Britain, France and Germany on Tehran's disputed nuclear program.

"As for relations between the European trio and Russia, we are not expecting any change in these relations. There is no need for that," Lavrov told reporters.

On Iraq, Rice's Russia visit coincides with the crucial national referendum vote on a constitution. Iraqi lawmakers this week approved a set of last-minute amendments to the constitution without a vote, sealing a compromise designed to win minority Sunni Arab support for the charter. Even so, it is not clear whether the charter will pass.

U.S. and Iraqi forces increased security across the country Thursday and prepared to impose an overnight curfew to try to reduce insurgent attacks aimed at wrecking the voting, the AP reports.

President George W. Bush sought to rally U.S. troops in Iraq ahead of the vote and to brace them for an expected surge in violence around the time of the vote.

"The enemy understands that a free Iraq would be a blow to their vision," Bush said in a video conference with soldiers from the Army's 42nd Infantry Division, based in Tikrit.


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