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Rice takes State Dept. reins, plans Mideast, Europe trips

WASHINGTON -- Condoleezza Rice worked the phones on her first day on the job as America's top diplomat yesterday, reaching out to European allies and partners in the war on terrorism and echoing President Bush's inaugural charge to promote liberty across the globe.

"The president has set forth a really bold agenda for American foreign policy," Rice said in a brief address to State Department employees who applauded as she entered the lobby. "I can't think of a better call than to say that America will stand for freedom and for liberty, that America will stand with those who want their aspirations met for liberty and freedom."

Among dozens of phone calls with foreign ministers and heads of government, Rice spoke yesterday with President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov of Russia, and Foreign Minister Gianfranco Fini of Italy.

Lavrov congratulated Rice on her confirmation and discussed the upcoming meeting between Bush and President Vladimir Putin of Russia in Slovakia, a statement from the Russian foreign ministry said.

Pakistan's Foreign Ministry spokesman, Masood Khan, said Musharraf also congratulated Rice and that the two "briefly discussed Pakistan-US relations as well as regional and international issues of mutual interest."

Rice has a heavy task to rebuild European and other alliances worn thin by international opposition to the US-led war in Iraq, and to help guide Middle East peace efforts after the death of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. The war, which has claimed the lives of more than 1,400 US troops, plus looming diplomatic and security problems in Iran and North Korea also top Rice's agenda.

Rice will travel quickly to the Middle East and Europe, the State Department said yesterday. The eight-day trip begins next week, ahead of Bush's own planned fence-mending trip to Europe later in February.

Secretary Rice and her designated deputy, Robert Zoellick, plan to visit all NATO capitals in the next few months, starting with this trip to Belgium, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, Poland, and Turkey, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said. He gave no precise details or dates of each stop.

In France, Rice plans to give her first major speech as secretary of state. Boucher said Rice will discuss NATO and separate European government help for training Iraqi security forces.

As part of the same trip, Rice will meet with leaders on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in Israel and the West Bank, Boucher said.

"She will, first of all, look to hear from them about the opportunities and how they're proceeding," Boucher said.

Foreign travel will probably take much of Rice's time for her first year or so in office, although contacts from her last job mean she needs fewer introductions to international leaders than many new secretaries of state.

Rice's large collection of football memorabilia and shelves of her personal books were waiting for her in her new office. In announcing her nomination, Bush joked that Rice's dream job would be commissioner of the National Football League.

Bush was to attend Rice's ceremonial swearing-in today. She assumed her duties as the country's 66th secretary of state Wednesday night, after an unexpectedly bruising Senate confirmation process. Senate Democrats harshly criticized her performance planning for war as Bush's White House national security adviser, and her stance on US torture policies and other topics.

Rice has been heavily involved in US planning for the Iraqi elections to be held Sunday. She attended a lengthy meeting on the elections at the White House yesterday. She planned several television appearances Sunday to discuss the elections, although it is not clear when voting results will be available.

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