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Powell announces program to promote economic, political and educational reform in Arab nations

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Bush administration says it will try to make freedom grow in the Middle East with a U.S.-financed program to promote economic, political and educational reform.

Secretary of State Colin Powell, announcing the initiative Thursday, said it is time to lay a firm foundation of hope among Arab people with ideas and funding.

He offered an initial contribution of $29 million, promised the administration would ask Congress for more next year and said wealthy Arab governments also would be asked to contribute.

Powell said the administration would promote business investment in Arab countries and emphasize the education of girls.

Half the Arab women are illiterate, Powell said in a speech at the Heritage Foundation, a private research group.

``Until the countries of the Middle East unleash the abilities and potential of their women, they will not build a future of hope,'' he said.

Powell did not heap criticism on Arab governments that are not democratic. But he said too many Middle Easterners are ruled by ``closed political systems'' and he praised Bahrain, Qatar and Morocco for launching political reform.

``We are adding hope to the U.S.-Middle East agenda. We are pledging our energy, our abilities and our idealism to bring hope to all God's children who call the Middle East home,'' Powell said.

``Hope begins with a paycheck,'' he said. ``And that requires a vibrant economy.''

Few details were released by Powell in a speech and news conference.

On Wednesday, CIA Director George J. Tenet pledged in a speech that the United States would draw closer to the Muslim world.

Tenet said it was a ``strategic imperative'' to support democracy and reform among Muslim nations. Otherwise, he said, they will be vulnerable to al-Qaida and other terrorist groups.

The two speeches reflect an effort by the administration to persuade Arabs and other Muslims that the U.S. fight against terrorism and the threat to use force to disarm Iraq are not directed at followers of Islam generally.

Powell said 14 million Arab adults lack the jobs they need to put food on their tables, roofs over their heads and hope in their hearts and that 10 million school-age children are at home or working.

``Too many people there lack the very political and economic freedom, empowerment of women and modern education they need to prosper in the 21st century,'' he said.
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