- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 10, 2004

Tunisian returns

Tunisia’s president is preparing for his first Washington visit in 14 years and hopes to build on more than two centuries of bilateral ties.

President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali is scheduled to meet President Bush next week to discuss issues ranging from U.S.-Tunisian relations to Middle East peace and terrorism, government spokesman Oussama Romdhani told editors and reporters at The Washington Times yesterday.

“We are eager to establish stronger cooperation [with the United States] and be a catalyst for a more efficient international effort,” Mr. Romdhani said.

The North African nation once was home to Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization and has been “involved in all efforts” to bring peace between the Palestinians and Israelis, even though Tunisia’s role often is behind the scenes, he said.

“We try to be discreet,” Mr. Romdhani added.

He said Arab nations in the region realize that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict must end.

“Peace and peaceful coexistence is the only solution. We must try and try again. … The whole area is tired of violence and war,” he said.

Mr. Romdhani said Mr. Ben Ali also will discuss Tunisia’s efforts to promote trade among the five North African nations and five European states that border the Mediterranean.

The “five-plus-five” talks are designed to promote economic and investment ties with a view toward a free-trade accord by 2008.

Mr. Romdhani said the accord, in part, reflects fears across North Africa that the European Union’s impending expansion deep into Eastern Europe could divert investment and trade. About 70 percent of Tunisia’s trade is with Western Europe.

“Our message to the West is that enlargement should not come at the expense of our own economic development,” Mr. Romdhani said.

He said he did not expect human rights and democratic reforms to be a major topic of discussion in the upcoming presidential meeting, despite a recent muted statement by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell encouraging faster democratic reforms in Tunisia and across the region.

He said Tunisia has a long record of social development, tolerance and equality for women.

“Each country must proceed at its own pace,” he said.

Mr. Ben Ali, who arrives on Monday, was scheduled to visit President Clinton in 1998, but the trip was canceled because Mr. Clinton was deeply involved in an attempt to broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.

“President Clinton called President Ben Ali to apologize,” Mr. Romdhani said.

Mr. Ben Ali’s last visit to Washington was in 1990 when he met with the first President Bush.

Iraqi warning

Iraq’s representative in Washington is appealing to the Bush administration to award reconstruction contracts to Iraqi firms to create jobs and reduce terrorism.

Rend al-Rahim Francke, Iraq’s de facto ambassador here, said the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority is causing resentment among Iraqis by handing out most contracts to American and other foreign firms.

“Alienation within the country is a dangerous feeling and can lead to revolution. We must be careful about that,” she said at an Iraqi reconstruction conference in Washington this week.

“Jobs for Iraqis will create stability and peace in Iraq, instead of terrorism.”

Unemployment in Iraq is estimated at more than 50 percent.

Embassy in China

The United States yesterday broke ground in Beijing for its largest and most expensive embassy, when U.S. Ambassador to China Clark Randt and Chinese Foreign Minister Zhou Wenzhong dug the first shovels of dirt to get the work started.

The 50,000-square-foot embassy will cost $275 million and is scheduled for completion in time for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Call Embassy Row at 202/636-3297, fax 202/832-7278 or e-mail [email protected]

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