Hillary to visit Cairo, Tunis
US secretary of state may meet Libyan opposition leaders during her travels.
Washington: US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Thursday she would visit Egypt and Tunisia next week to back their moves toward democracy, her first trip to the US allies since their presidents were toppled.
Hillary also said she planned to meet Libyan opposition leaders during her travels as Washington seeks ways to help them oust Libya`s strongman Muammar Gaddafi, whose forces are engaged in pitched battles with armed rebels.
With the stakes high for US interests in the Middle East, she said she would meet with the Egyptian and Tunisian people as well as their transitional leaders, discussing plans for more aid to boost their moves to democracy.
"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," she said.
"We know how difficult that will be," Hillary said following mass popular uprisings that deposed president Hosni Mubarak of Egypt in February and president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia in January.
"We have an enormous stake in ensuring that Egypt and Tunisia provide models for the kind of democracy that we want to see," Hillary told lawmakers as she frequently warned them about Iran`s bid for influence in the Middle East.
Defending the US foreign aid budget against planned cuts by Republican lawmakers, she called for assistance to Egypt on top of the USD 150 million for economic and election assistance that she announced last month.
"We`re going to have to look at some bigger things than that," she told the House Appropriations Committee.
Saying Egyptians are telling her that they are not looking to Europe or the Gulf as their main source of aid, she warned: "They`re looking to us, and I think that`s a good thing, and we need to be there to help them."
Hillary said she would also push for USD 20 million for Tunisia to "respond to some of their needs" after Tunisian officials clamoured for US help.
"We need to have a very big commitment to Tunisia, that we can be ready to help them economically as well as with their democratic transformation," said the secretary.
She said US diplomats were working meanwhile with counterparts at the United Nations, NATO, the African Union, Arab League and the Gulf Cooperation Council to "isolate, sanction and pressure Gaddafi" to stop attacking his people.
The United States still seems sceptical of a drumbeat of demands for a Libyan no-fly zone, but hints are emerging of a possible last-ditch plan to deter any mass aerial slaughter of civilians.
The US diplomatic effort is also aimed at sending a "clear message" to Gaddafi aides that "they too will be held accountable if they commit crimes against the Libyan people”, she said.
In addition, she said she will be meeting with Libyan opposition figures, both in "the United States and when I travel next week, to discuss what more the United States and others can do”.
US officials said on Tuesday that Gene Cretz, the US ambassador to Libya who was in Washington before the Libyan uprising erupted last month, had met in Cairo with Gaddafi opponents.
Officials declined to identify Cretz`s interlocutors but said Washington has been in contact with opposition members inside and outside the national council, which is headed by former Libyan justice minister Mustafa Abdel Jalil.
Libyan state television on Thursday broadcast what it said was a tape of a telephone conversation between Cretz and the rebels` military chief Omar al-Hariri.
US officials declined to provide any immediate comment and said they were not sure they would.
Hillary said the United States is meanwhile "suspending our relationships" with the Libyan embassy in Washington and expected it to shut down amid what a US official said were steps to force Gaddafi to step down.