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'Israel-Palestinian Conflict is Most Important Mideast Issue,' says Jordan's Foreign Minister - 2003-03-13

Jordan says there is still a chance to resolve the Iraq crisis through peaceful means, but acknowledges that time is running out. Foreign Minister Marwan Muasher says his country will not join a U.S.-led war against Iraq and has not been asked to do so.

He says several hundred U.S. troops are currently positioned in Jordan for defensive purposes only, including the operation of Patriot anti-missile systems.

Mr. Muasher does not expect any deliberate attack on Jordan but says the Patriot system will enhance security. During the 1991 Gulf War, Iraqi scud missiles, presumably meant to hit Israeli cities, landed on Jordanian soil.

Talking with a group of foreign reporters about the consequences of a war in Iraq, the foreign minister underlines the urgent need to get the Israeli-Palestinian peace process back on track.

"On its own, without war on Iraq, the peace process to everyone in the region remains the number one issue," Mr. Muasher said. "But if you add the Iraqi war to that, it would be in our view catastrophic to have two wounds open at the same time, to have a war in Iraq and another one in the West Bank. And nothing that the international community will do in Iraq to ease the pressure would successfully do that, not only without serious movement on the peace process but also movement to end the conflict."

Jordan, which signed a peace agreement with Israel in 1994, has been actively involved in efforts to revive the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

Mr. Muasher says now is the time to implement plans already approved by the international community to reach a peace settlement in three years.

"Nothing short of that will ease the tension that will result from the Iraqi war and that will stay in the region for years to come," he said.

Peace advocates have raised concerns that the focus on Iraq has diverted attention from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Mr. Muasher says a firm U.S. commitment is vital to implementing an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.

"The time for promises and blueprints is over. The time for action is now," he said.

Mr. Muasher says reaching a peace settlement is even more important for Jordan than receiving economic aid to offset the impact of a war in Iraq. Economic aid, he says, only solves the short-term problems.