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US's Rice to visit Europe -- and maybe beyond

Written by: Staff
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WASHINGTON, Apr 23 (Reuters) US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will start a trip to Europe tomorrow but her apparently light schedule raises the possibility she could add a surprise stop in the west asia such as Iraq.

Rice has announced she will visit Greece, Turkey and Bulgaria on a Monday-to-Friday trip although she has given few details about her itinerary.

A five-day trip to three countries which are near each other would be gentle traveling for the hard-charging globe-trotter who has visited up to four nations in a day.

Determined to use the element of surprise to counter possible attacks against her in the west asia, Rice has kept some plans secret, including stops in Baghdad and Beirut in the last three months.

With Rice's aides willing to mislead about potential stops to dangerous countries, her trips have become surrounded with speculation.

A return trip to Iraq, where she arrived unannounced early this month for a two-day visit, would allow her to welcome the prime minister-designate after his selection on Friday and prod divided Iraqi leaders to form a unified Cabinet.

Political analysts say Rice could also consider a visit to Libya to reward leader Muammar Gaddafi for scrapping weapons of mass destruction programs, although most believe it is too early in the nations' rapprochement for such a gesture.

On this week's trip, Rice will attend a NATO meeting in Bulgaria, where she will seek to hammer out a diplomatic strategy with ministers from across Europe to curb Iran's nuclear programs.

In Greece and Turkey, she needs to balance US interests with the rivals while she supports Ankara's ambition to join the European Union and prods the neighbors to promote a peace settlement on the divided island of Cyprus.

Maybe Cyprus itself is a secret destination -- or perhaps, this time, the surprise will be that there are no surprises.

REUTERS SRS BST2008

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