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World: Arab League Adopts First Joint Reform Plan

Prague, 23 May 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The Arab League today adopted a broad program aimed at promoting political reform in Arab countries and fighting international terrorism.

The Arab League blueprint was announced at the closing session of a two-day summit in the Tunisian capital.

The development follows a call by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell earlier this month for Arab leaders to work together in order to promote democratic and economic reforms in their countries.

But Tunisian Foreign Affairs Minister Habib Ben Yahia insisted today that the plan is not the result of pressure from the United States.

"The paper about reforms, the Arab paper, is a very important exercise that was done at the request of the Arab countries about the necessity of performing certain things that are essential to the future of our society. It was done in a way that it is a homegrown process because the reforms are from within the countries," he said. "[We intend] to address the issue internally, within the sovereign right of each country. And we are not going to interfere with the sovereign decision of every country."

The 13-point program represents the first joint pledge for reform made by the 22-member Arab League. The group has called for the foreign ministers of several Arab countries to present its plan at the next meeting of the Group of Eight (G8) advanced industrial countries on 10 June. Arab countries invited to that G8 gathering include Bahrain, Yemen, Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia.

In the closing statement of the Arab League summit today, Arab leaders said they are determined to pursue and intensify the process of political, economic, social, and educational reforms according to the choices of individual Arab societies, their cultures, and religions.

But correspondents covering the summit note that the word "reform" was removed from parts of the plan at the insistence of Syria. Instead, it was replaced by the words "development and modernization."

The U.S. government wants the G8 meeting in June to be the venue for launching what Washington calls a "Greater Middle East Initiative." That initiative seeks greater cooperation between the United States, the G8, the European Union, and NATO in support of political and economic reform in the Arab world.

But the language adopted by the Arab League today distances the Arab call for reform from the U.S. initiative. In its preamble, the document links reforms to a "just settlement" to conflicts facing the region -- particularly the Palestinian conflict.

Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa also read a statement today condemning Israeli military activities that "target civilians without distinction," as well as military operations by Israel that the Arab leaders say have contributed to an escalation of violence by targeting Palestinian leaders.

"[We, the Arab world leaders, stress] the necessity for commitment by all of the international parties to live up to all of the principles of international legitimacy and UN resolutions when it comes to the Israeli-Arab conflict. Without exception, these principles should be the basis of any resolution to this conflict in accordance with the Arab summit and the [internationally backed] road map [for Mideast peace]," Moussa said.

Washington has sparked criticism in many parts of the Arab world by proposing a reform initiative for Arab countries. Some Arab critics see the U.S. initiative as an effort to impose external values on Arab societies. Faced with those criticisms, Washington has sought to lower its profile by saying that it would favor reform initiatives that come from Arab states.

(with wire reports)