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German Chancellor Criticizes Iran, Syria for Roles in Mideast

By: Michael Fischer

The Associated Press, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates — German Chancellor Angela Merkel criticized Iran and Syria on Monday for their role in the Middle East and urged the international community to seize a vanishing "window of opportunity" to settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Merkel, who has made progress toward peace a goal of her country’s six-month European Union presidency, came to Abu Dhabi as part of a tour of Arab countries.

"There are forces, in the region and elsewhere, that do not want success in these efforts," she said in a speech at the Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research. "On this account we have concerns, especially with respect to Iran."

Merkel criticized Iran’s nuclear program as a destabilizing influence and said its role in Lebanon was "not helpful."

She also criticized Syria’s actions with regard to Lebanon.

"Syria has not used its opportunity to play a constructive role," the chancellor said. "One step, for example, would be to recognize Lebanon diplomatically."

Both Iran and Syria back Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite group that battled Israeli forces for 34 days this summer and has been demonstrating to demand the resignation of Lebanon’s U.S.-backed prime minister.

The so-called Quartet — the U.S., the U.N., the EU and Russia — met in Washington last week to continue exploring ways to jump-start peacemaking between Israel and the Palestinians.

Merkel said the Quartet could bring results but warned of "a window of opportunity that is finite." German officials have stressed the importance of Washington pushing the parties toward the Quartet’s proposed two-state solution, and have warned that the 2008 U.S. presidential election could prove a distraction.

"The dreams that we were able to achieve in Germany, that must also succeed in this region," Merkel said, alluding to the unification of East and West Germany. "And I think we’re almost obligated to make a contribution."

The tour has taken Merkel to Egypt and Saudi Arabia, both of which have worked to mediate between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah faction and the rival Islamic militant Hamas, which runs the Palestinian government.

Merkel threw her support behind talks between Fatah and Hamas in Saudi Arabia on Tuesday.

"We will do everything in our power to see that these talks turn out successfully," she said. "At the very least, we will be in close contact with those who are conducting these talks."

Merkel also pointed to what she said was a chance for a solution to the wider Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

"It would be a great mistake if we did not use this moment," she said, adding that the EU was ready to step up its efforts. "I have always said that it’s a matter of combining our efforts and directing them."