U.S. Sen. Susan Collins hopes to zero in on the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden during a weeklong information-gathering tour that will take her to Iraq and three other Middle East hot spots.

Collins, along with a group of Senate Armed Services Committee members led by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., expects to visit Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

She said the timing of the trip is right.

“This trip comes at a critical time for this entire region,” she said.

In Pakistan, she plans to meet with President Pervez Musharraf to discuss joint anti-terrorist efforts in tracking down al-Qaida members.

“I want to ask him outright if he thinks Osama bin Laden is hiding in the mountainous region along the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan as many are speculating,” she said.

In Iraq and Afghanistan, she hopes to spend time with Maine troops, including the 133rd Engineer Battalion, which lost two soldiers when a dining hall was bombed in Mosul. She wants to ask them about American military operations and thank them for their sacrifice, she said. One way she expects to show that is by distributing 200 phone cards she obtained from AT&T.

“I know that the ability to call home for free is a welcome opportunity for a lot of our servicemen and women,” she said.

Collins also expects to meet with Iraqi interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, Sunni and Shiite leaders in Iraq, and Afghan President Hamid Karzai in an effort to learn more about the recent elections and newly formed democratic governments in those countries.

She hopes to see progress in the development of Iraqi security, she said. “The sooner we can get Iraqi forces trained and equipped, the sooner our troops can start coming home,” she said.

Collins also hopes to learn more about reconstruction and resettlement efforts in war-torn areas of those countries, such as Falluja, Iraq, where Marines from Maine are stationed. While in Afghanistan, she has arranged to meet with officials in charge of counter-narcotics training to assess their progress in stemming the cultivation of poppies.

Collins recalled meeting with Karzai in 2002 outdoors in an Army tent at an air base. It had been too dangerous to meet in Kabul because of the Taliban’s hold on the country then, she said. She had talked to him about human rights, noting that girls had not been allowed to attend schools and that women could not vote.

“It will be fascinating to return there … and see the difference in the lives of girls and women,” she said. “I’m really looking forward to seeing the difference three years make.”

Also traveling with McCain and Collins are Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Russ Feingold, D-Wis.

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