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G8 Agrees to Boost Democracy and Free Markets in Middle East and North Africa - 2004-06-10

The eight-nation summit hosted by President Bush at Sea Island, Georgia ended Thursday with a commitment to boost assistance to the poorest African countries. The three day meeting of the European, North American, Japanese and Russian leaders will probably be remembered most for the launch of a program to boost democracy and free markets in the Middle East and North Africa.

It is called the Broader Middle East Initiative, a concept for promoting openness and trade that bridges differences between the United States and Britain on the one hand and Germany and France on the other. The initiative was endorsed by several Islamic leaders who traveled to Georgia to take part in its unveiling.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair says it is wrong to characterize the initiative as an attempt to impose Western values on Islamic cultures.

"We are not saying in the Middle East you have to be like us," he explained. "What we are saying is that we know you want to reform. We know you want to make changes and we will help you do that."

By all accounts this meeting of the eight leaders did much to mend the relations that were badly bruised a year ago when Germany, France and Russia strongly opposed the U.S. and British plan to invade Iraq and oust Saddam Hussein. President Bush said that it is useful when leaders get together and speak openly of any differences they may have.

"[It's important to say] What's on your mind? Here's what I think. What do you think? And if there is a difference, try to explain the difference. And try to find common ground to work together," he said. "We've got too much to do in a world of terror, poverty and disease to allow a policy difference to prevent us from working together. That's why these G8 summits are meaningful and worthwhile."

Mr. Blair, who will host next year's summit in Scotland, agrees that the annual summits of the major powers are useful.

"My judgement is that it is sensible to have this forum," he added. "Where we can come together and discuss these issues. Yes, security is a problem. That's why increasingly we have these not in cities because it is difficult to have them in cities, but you know if we started canceling the summits because of the security, then we would have handed those people, opposed to these meetings a victory."

This year's meeting was held at a secluded luxury resort on an island just off the Atlantic coast of Georgia. The annual summits, which began as a six nation grouping in 1975, used to focus on economic issues, but in recent years they have been mainly concerned with geo-political and security matters.