U.S., Spain to propose NATO role in Middle East.

The United States and Spain will make joint proposals next week for a role for the NATO defence organisation in Middle East peace efforts, Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos said on Saturday.

Fresh from talks in Washington on Friday, he said he and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had been asked to present ideas at a meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Lithuania next Wednesday.

It would be the 26-nation Western alliance's first involvement in the Arab-Israeli conflict, long regarded as outside its Euro-Atlantic area of operation.

But NATO has since expanded its reach to Afghanistan and has a small officer training mission in Iraq.

"Within NATO, Condoleezza Rice and I have been asked to open the debate and make proposals next Wednesday in Vilnius to debate NATO's role and define its contribution to the Middle East peace process," Motarinos told reporters.

"We have to find a common position of the Americans and the Europeans."

He gave no details but diplomats said it was more likely to involve training Palestinian officers and participating in a regional security dialogue rather than any deployment of NATO forces on the ground, which was highly unlikely unless there was a final settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

European Union foreign ministers, including Moratinos, discussed on Saturday helping the peace process by training Palestinian police ahead of and after the planned Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip later this year.

The EU already has a small police mission on the spot headed by a former chief of the British police in Northern Ireland.

[Source: Reuters, Luxembourg, 16Apr05]

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