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French Version

Gates sounds out king of Jordan on regional issues

Jordan's King Abdullah II sought to rally support for the Arab peace plan during talks with US Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who downplayed the exit of hard-line Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's faction from Iraq's coalition government.

Gates arrived in Jordan on Monday as part of a regional tour to rally support for Iraq's government and counter Iran's growing influence. Gates is next scheduled to travel to Egypt and Israel.

Abdullah told Gates during a closed-door meeting that the Arab peace initiative "reflects the Arab willingness to establish peace with Israel and end decades of Arab-Israeli conflict," according to a palace statement.

He said that the "Palestinian-Israeli problem remains the core conflict in the region and that international and regional actors should make the establishment of an independent Palestinian state a priority in order to realize regional peace and stability."

The king also reiterated the "importance of advancing peace in the region in accordance with a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict," the statement said.

The king has also urged Israel to respond "positively" to the Arab plan, saying it offered a "rare opportunity."

An Arab summit held in Riyadh last month offered Israel peace and normal ties with Arab countries in exchange for withdrawing from Arab land occupied during the 1967 war, the creation of a Palestinian state and the return of refugees.

On Thursday, Jordan will host Israeli Speaker Dalia Yitzik for more talks on the plan.

On Iraq, Gates said Sadr's move to pull his ministers out of Iraq's government may provide a chance to advance reconciliation in the country.

"There is the opportunity to turn what might seem like a negative potentially into a positive development," he said.

Sadr's political movement announced on Monday its six ministers were quitting Shiite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's shaky coalition because he would not agree to a timetable for withdrawing US forces from Iraq.

Gates suggested Maliki may be able to bring in replacements who could improve relations between Iraq's sectarian groups.

"The impact that ... these resignations have will depend in some measure on who is selected to replace these ministers and their capabilities and whether those vacancies are used in a way that perhaps can further advance the reconciliation process," Gates said.

He did not answer directly when asked if he was advocating the inclusion of more Sunnis in the Shiite-led government. "I think anything that can be done that advances the reconciliation process, perhaps including broadening representation in the Cabinet, probably would be a positive thing but that's a judgment that the Iraqi leadership is going to have to make," he said.

Iraqi officials have said non-sectarian technocrats would likely be chosen to fill in the six portfolios, which include health and transportation.

Abdullah said that the "inclusion of all Iraqis in the political process was the only guarantee for a better future to the country" - a reference to Sunni Iraqis who complain that they are sidelined by their Shiite-dominated government.

"I think that there is not yet confidence in the region that Iraq's government represents all Iraqis," Gates said. "The more encouragement [Iraq's] neighbors can provide [and] the more they support the Iraqi government," the more representative the government would become.

On Iran, the two sides "agreed that diplomatic and economic pressure was the most profitable way to get Iranians to change their behavior," the defense secretary said.

A senior US military official in Gates' delegation said Washington wanted Jordan and Egypt to show more public support for Maliki's government.

Later Tuesday, Abdullah met with a group of American peace activists and the Israel Policy Forum as part of his efforts to rally Arab, Israeli and international cooperation to push the peace process forward.

Abdullah said the Israel Policy Forum, which supports a political settlement with the Palestinians through a two-state solution, could be an effective partner, Jordan's official Petra news agency said. The organization was founded in 1993 in an effort to mobilize American Jews to support the peace process.

The Daily Star

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