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Powell Offers Reassurances about US Policies, Motives in Middle East - 2004-05-16


In Jordan Sunday, Secretary of State Colin Powell faced some tough questions about U.S. policy toward the Middle East, and he seemed intent on reassuring the region about U.S. policies and motives. Mr. Powell has been attending a Middle East economic forum on Jordan's Dead Sea coast.

Coming to the World Economic Forum at this isolated Dead Sea resort, Secretary Powell was bound to face criticism and skepticism. There is widespread anger in the Arab world about what is viewed as deepening American support for Israel and over the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq. Recent photos of American soldiers abusing Iraqi prisoners and the upsurge in Israeli-Palestinian violence in the Gaza Strip over the past week have only added to Arab resentment and suspicion.

Coming to the forum, Secretary Powell defended the Bush administration's policy and offered reassurances of its motives. At a news conference, Mr. Powell said the United States opposes Israel's destruction of Palestinian homes in the Rafah refugee camp in the Gaza Strip.

"We know that Israel has the right for self-defense, but the kind of action they are taking in Rafah, with the destruction of Palestinian homes, we oppose," he said.

Israeli forces have destroyed at least dozens of Palestinian homes in Rafah amid fierce fighting during the past week in the Gaza Strip. Thirteen Israeli soldiers and at least 29 Palestinians have been killed in the clashes.

Mr. Powell said the United States is anxious to do all it can to end the cycle of violence and he said President Bush remains committed to the creation of a Palestinian state and to the "roadmap" peace plan.

A day earlier, Mr. Powell defended President Bush's recent written assurances to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of new realities, taken to mean that Mr. Bush endorsed Israel keeping some parts of the West Bank.

Mr. Powell described President Bush's move as a bold decision designed to get the peace process moving again.

At Sunday's news conference with Mr. Powell, Jordanian Foreign Minister Marwan Muasher defended his country's cooperation with Washington, stressing the need to look beyond the uproar over President Bush's letter to Mr. Sharon and his subsequent reassurances to Jordan that Washington would not prejudge any final agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.

"The bottom line is no letter, whether to the Israelis or to the Arab side is going to move the peace process forward without all of us making sure that the necessary steps are taken in order to start building the Palestinian state in order to move forward towards the end of the Israeli occupation," said Mr. Muasher.

The situation in Iraq was also prominent at the Dead Sea forum. Secretary Powell reaffirmed the United States' commitment to turning over sovereignty to an interim Iraqi government by the end of June, and he stressed Washington's support for the efforts of U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi in putting together this administration.

Mr. Powell also apologized for the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by American soldiers. Addressing the forum on Saturday, Mr. Powell said those responsible will be brought to justice.

"We will deal with this. We will see that justice is done," he said. "We will make sure that any problems that we had within our system of command are dealt with. I want you to know that you are about to see American democracy in action."

The three-day Dead Sea meeting, organized by the World Economic Forum, has brought together more than 1,000 politicians, intellectuals, and business leaders. Much of the discussion focuses on political and economic reforms, trade and business issues, but experts say progress in these areas is not likely unless the political uncertainties and the violence plaguing the region are addressed.

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