US, Germany relaunch Quartet

BERLIN (AFP) — US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and current EU President Germany said Wednesday the international Quartet for Middle East peace would meet next month, calling the time ripe for a fresh initiative.

Rice and German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier told reporters after talks in Berlin that representatives from the United Nations, the United States, Russia and the European Union would meet in Washington “probably February 1 or 2”.

“I look forward to that meeting as we reenergise the Quartet in its efforts to support the progress in the Middle East that could lead to a two-state solution and a Palestinian state living side by side in peace, democracy and freedom,” Rice said.

Germany, in its capacity as the current EU president, has pushed for a revitalised role for the Quartet at what it considers to be an auspicious time to bring an end to the bloodshed.

“A solution to that problem is more urgent today than ever,” Steinmeier said. “We are both of the opinion that the time is ripe for a meeting of the Quartet.” Its last full meeting was in September.

Rice came to Germany from Kuwait after completing a six-country tour of the Middle East during which she announced she would hold a three-way summit with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas within a month.

She said in Berlin it would take “a few weeks” to organise the three-way summit.

“I think it will be useful to have the meeting with the Quartet in advance of that meeting,” Rice said.

Rice said Sunday Washington wanted to build on what she called “the momentum that is currently in Palestinian-Israeli relations”.

Steinmeier said he believed the stalled roadmap — the peace plan drawn up in 2003 by the members of the Quartet with the aim of establishing a viable Palestinian state living peacefully alongside Israel — remained the best option for progress.

In Berlin, Rice also met Christopher Hill, the top US envoy to six-party talks on North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme, who is holding discussions with the North’s negotiator in the German capital.

She said she hoped the six-party negotiations would resume “soon” and that Hill’s talks in the German capital would pave the way for “a more favourable atmosphere” when the discussions continue.

Rice and Steinmeier also discussed Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Rice underscored the US administration’s refusal to engage in bilateral talks with Tehran until it stops enriching uranium. “This is not the time to break a longstanding American policy of not engaging with the Iranians bilaterally,” she said. “It’s just not the time.” Germany, which has with EU partners Britain and France negotiated with Iran on its nuclear programme, has frequently called on Washington to open a dialogue with the Islamic republic.

Rice’s trip to the Middle East had the dual aims of breathing new life into the Palestinian-Israeli peace process and winning support for the Bush administration’s plan to deploy more than 20,000 additional US troops in Iraq.

After talks with Rice in Kuwait City Tuesday, the six members of the pro-US Gulf Cooperation Council along with Egypt and Jordan gave the plan a cautious welcome and issued a call for Iraq’s neighbours not to meddle in the strife-torn country.

The Gulf states and the US said they wanted to prevent Iraq “becoming a battleground for regional and international powers”.

This could also refer to Syria which has been repeatedly accused by Washington of fuelling the Iraqi insurgency.

“We expressed our desire to see the president’s plan to reinforce the American military presence in Baghdad as a vehicle… to stabilize Baghdad and to prevent Iraq from sliding into this ugly war,” Kuwaiti Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammad Sabah said.

Rice admitted that Iraq’s predominantly Sunni Arab neighbours were sceptical about the ability of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki’s Shiite government to halt the sectarian violence that has pitted Sunni Arabs against Shiites.

“There are concerns about whether the Maliki government is prepared to take an even-handed, non-sectarian path… but everybody wants to give this a chance. That is the position of the people in the region and there is in fact a burden on the Iraqi government to perform,” she said in Kuwait.

She will continue on to London, the last stop of her tour, Thursday after talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. 

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