WASHINGTON Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is set to travel to Egypt and Tunisia next week, becoming the most senior American official to visit the region after popular revolts toppled U.S.-allied governments in both countries.
"I intend to convey strong support of the Obama administration and the American people, that we wish to be a partner in the important work that lies ahead as they embark on a transition to a genuine democracy," Clinton told a congressional panel Thursday.
"We have an enormous stake in ensuring that Egypt and Tunisia provide models for the kind of democracy that we want to see," Clinton said, saying she planned to speak directly to the Tunisian and Egyptian people during the visit.
Clinton will be in Paris on March 14-15 for a meeting of the Group of Eight foreign ministers, and will then fly on to Egypt and Tunisia on March 15-17, the State Department said.
Clinton's Mideast tour will allow her to assess firsthand the situation in Egypt, where the United States gave strong support to protesters who ultimately forced the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak, a longtime U.S. ally, in February.
She will also talk to transitional government officials in Tunisia, which launched the wave of political turmoil sweeping the Arab world in January with mass protests that toppled President Zine Al-Abidine Ben Ali.
Egypt and Tunisia both border Libya, where leader Muammar Gaddafi's increasingly bloody battle against rebels seeking to end his 41-year rule has spurred rising calls for international action.
Clinton told the House of Representatives appropriations committee that the Obama administration was consulting with the United Nations on possible stronger measures on Libya, and was seeking to build bridges to Libyan opposition figures.
'BOMBS AND BULLETS'
"We are standing with the Libyan people as they brave bombs and bullets to demand that Gaddafi must go now," Clinton said.
"We are reaching out to the opposition inside and outside of Libya. I will be meeting with some of those figures both here in the United States and when I travel next week to discuss what more the United States and others can do."
The United States has joined relief efforts for thousands of people fleeing Libya's unrest into both Egypt and Tunisia, but has not embraced proposals for a military response, including establishing a no-fly zone over the country.
In a grim assessment of the rebels' chances, U.S. intelligence chief James Clapper told a Senate committee that Libyan forces loyal to Gaddafi were better equipped, had more logistical resources, and "over longer-term, that the regime will prevail."
Clinton's trip takes place as the United States seeks to understand how the political transformation of the Middle East will affect U.S. interests and those of its key regional ally, Israel.
Washington has backed what it calls an orderly transition in Egypt, where the military is overseeing a temporary government with plans for a constitutional referendum and new elections for both parliament and president.
The United States has already announced $150 million in aid for Egypt, including $60 million to prepare for elections.
"We're going to have to look at some bigger things than that," Clinton said. "They are not looking to Europe, they are not looking to the Gulf, although they are happy to have their help. They are looking to us."
Clinton will also meet caretaker authorities in Tunisia, who are shepherding through political changes before elections for a new national constituent assembly in July.
Clinton said the United States had to remain engaged with the Middle East as the new order emerges.
"Yes, it's exciting. And it also presents very significant challenges to America's position, to our security and to our long-term interests," she said.
(Additional reporting by Tabassum Zakaria; Editing by Doina Chiacu)