Rice insists democracy will come to Middle East despite setbacks

Nearly a year after she was ridiculed for calling a bloody war in Lebanon "the birth pangs of a new Middle East," U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is insisting democracy will still come to the Mideast whatever the setbacks.

In Paris for talks on the future of Sudan's ravaged Darfur region and a meeting with Lebanon's Western-backed premier, Rice acknowledged the bad news coming from Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories.

"Democracy is hard, and I see it as especially hard when there are determined enemies who try and strangle it," Rice said when asked about the "birth pangs" remark during a news conference with French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner.

Kouchner organized Monday's conference to speed deployment of about 20,000 new peacekeeping troops to Darfur, the vast, arid region where an estimated 200,000 have died in fighting between African rebels and militias backed by the Arab-led Sudanese government. The conflict has driven about 2.5 million from their homes.

"I have seen firsthand the devastation and the difficult circumstances in which people live in Darfur, and I will be very frank," Rice said. "I do not think that the international community has really lived up to its responsibilities there."

Rice visited Darfur in 2005, spending an afternoon in a refugee camp. Kouchner, a Socialist doctor who co-founded the Nobel Prize-winning aid group Doctors Without Borders, has been to Darfur more frequently and more recently.

Rice's two-day Paris trip is a coming-out party for what the U.S. Bush administration hopes will be a happier relationship with new French President Nicolas Sarkozy after perceived slights and lectures from his predecessor, Jacques Chirac.

Sarkozy and Rice were meeting Monday ahead of the Darfur session, which includes major powers with ties or influence in the eastern African country. She is seeing Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora on Tuesday.

Rice welcomed another summit Monday between the Israeli and Palestinian leaders in Egypt, calling Arab support for embattled Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas more important than his Western backing. She acknowledged the difficulties Abbas has faced since his Islamic rivals Hamas won Palestinian elections last year.

It will be the first meeting between Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert since Abbas lost control to Hamas in the Gaza Strip and consolidated power under an emergency government in the West Bank.

Israel agreed Sunday to release desperately needed funds to Abbas. The gesture a day before the summit with leaders of Egypt, Israel and Jordan was meant to bolster him in his struggle with Hamas.

The birth analogy caused anger and eye-rolling across the Middle East, and Rice has dropped it from her rhetoric. She had made the remark during a frantic shuttle diplomacy mission last summer that neither ended Israel's one-month war with Hezbollah militants in Lebanon nor helped the U.S. image as a go-between.

Questioned by Western and Arab reporters Sunday, Rice gave a forceful defense of the principle behind the words - that violence and hardship may be necessary to achieve freedom, and that the forces of moderation and democracy will win out against what Rice calls extremists.

Violence and fratricide have followed each of three U.S.-backed elections in the Middle East in the past three years - in Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories.

"Yeah, it's really hard. It's hard for democracy to take hold in a place where it has not taken hold before, but I am confident about the triumph of these values because I've seen it before," Rice said.

"There is nothing wrong with the people of the Middle East," she added. "They can triumph and triumph democratically."