NATO's relations with Mediterranean countries and the wider region of the Middle East was the focus of a conference held Friday at the NATO Defense College in Rome.
Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini, who opened the conference, said NATO should play a major role in strengthening political ties among countries in the Mediterranean region.
He told a news conference NATO's political role should be a major instrument in addressing common challenges among Mediterranean countries.
NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said forging closer ties with northern Africa and the Middle East in fighting terrorism and other common challenges is not an attempt to impose Western ideas on the region.
NATO's decade-old Mediterranean Dialogue initiative is aimed at helping the participating countries to reform their militaries and improve cooperation. The program includes Israel, Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Mauritania, Morocco and Tunisia.
Mr. de Hoop Scheffer said deepening the dialogue is going to be one of the main topics of NATO's June summit. He said he was sending his deputy, Ambassador Alessandro Minuto Rizzo to the region to discuss NATO's ideas with the governments. He will then draw up plans for promoting the dialogue.
He said the summit will also focus on NATO's partnerships with the European Union and the Caucasus and Central Asia and will also address NATO's missions in Afghanistan and the Balkans.
NATO had agreed six months ago to expand its peacekeeping force in Afghanistan, but the governments have been slow to provide additional troops for the broader mission. NATO military chiefs, who met in Brussels Thursday, said more time is needed to fill the troop shortfall. There are currently 65-hundred NATO troops in Afghanistan.
Mr. de Hoop Scheffer said relations with the EU are of particular importance for NATO.
?After the enlargement, out of the 26 NATO members, 19 are members of the European Union; so I think it is absolutely essential that NATO and the European Union further build on this over important and all-important partnership,? Mr. Scheffer said.
The NATO summit is to be held June 28 and 29 in Istanbul.