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Rice: Mideast Quartet to Meet in Washington


Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Thursday the international Quartet on the Middle East will meet in Washington in two weeks to try to advance Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts. Rice, in Berlin after a Middle East mission, took a hard line against dialogue with Iran. VOA's David Gollust reports from the German capital.

Rice is briefing European officials on the results of her six-stop Middle East tour, and says she will host a ministerial-level meeting of the Quartet on February 1 or February 2 in an effort to harmonize the position of the major powers on regional peace efforts.

The Bush administration has been under pressure from Arab and European allies to do more on the Israeli-Palestinian front, under the assumption it could advance progress on other problems including the Iraq conflict and political crisis in Lebanon.

In the main achievement of her trip, Rice secured an agreement for a three-way meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority chief Mahmoud Abbas within the next month to discuss possible terms for a two-state solution of the Middle East conflict.

Rice said the final-status talks, the first of their kind in six years, would not circumvent the 2003 Middle East road map from the Quartet - which includes the European Union, Russia and the United Nations along with the United States.

At a press appearance with German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeyer, Rice assured Germany, which holds the rotating E.U. presidency, that the Quartet remains central to the peace process:

"The Quartet is the guardian, in a sense, of that road map, and so I would expect that as we try to accelerate progress on the road map, the Quartet would try and lend assistance to the parties as they try to do that," she said.

European officials had expressed concern about being excluded from peace efforts and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who Rice meets Thursday, has made rejuvenation of the Quartet a priority for Germany's term at the head of the EU.

At the press appearance with Rice, Foreign Minister Steinmeier said the Quartet and its peace plan is not an end in itself, but can play a meaningful role in coordinating policy. He is heard through an interpreter:

"I've always pleaded in favor of a meeting of the Quartet because we can put an end to these competing ideas that are being presented by separate countries, individual country," he said. "But the Quartet allows us to sort of bundle, and in so doing strengthen our common efforts. And I am confident that we are going to succeed.

In addition to meeting Israeli and Palestinian leaders, Rice held talks in Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and finally Kuwait, where she met Gulf foreign ministers and reportedly heard calls for the United States to engage Iran to try to bring peace to Iraq.

Asked about the appeal here, Rice said she is prepared to end 27 years of estrangement and engage Iran, but only if it meets the U.N. Security Council's demand that it ends uranium enrichment and return to negotiations over its nuclear program:

"This is not the time to break a long-standing American policy of not engaging with the Iranians bilaterally," she added. "It's just not the time. And as to what other countries may do, might wish to do, that's a decision for other countries. But I think we all need to stay focused on the fact that Iran is in violation of a Security Council resolution until its suspends its enrichment and reprocessing activities."

Rice denied that the Bush administration, which has sent additional naval forces to the Persian Gulf, is trying to escalate tensions with Tehran.

She said the United States is simply responding to Iranian aid to elements in Iraq attacking American forces with explosive devices, but she reiterated administration assertions that the problem can be handled inside Iraq.

She ends her weeklong trip with consultations in London late Thursday.

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