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Middle East Tops Agenda At Obama-Merkel Talks

Obama called the U.S.-German relationship "outstanding."
German Chancellor Angela Merkel has met with visiting U.S. President Barack Obama for talks dominated by the Middle East peace process.

During their initial meeting in the eastern German city of Dresden, both leaders also discussed the global economic crisis and Washington's plans to close its military prison at Guantanamo Bay.

Obama and Merkel spared no effort in trying to dispel rumors of a rift between their countries, sparked by the brevity and sparsity of official business on Obama's German visit.

Speaking at a joint press conference following their talks in Dresden, the U.S. President was quick to praise what he said were "outstanding" bilateral relations and firmly dismissed the reported diplomatic chill.

"The relationship, not only between our two countries, but our two governments is outstanding," Obama said. "Most of the speculation around my schedule here in Germany doesn't take into account simple logistics -- traveling, trying to get from one place to the other, coming off a Middle East trip, having to go to Normandy tomorrow -- there are only 24 hours in the day."

Mideast On The Mind

The Middle East peace process topped the agenda of the meeting, which comes one day after Obama delivered a landmark speech in Cairo in which he sought rapprochement with the Muslim world.

Obama said he had taken a vital step to revive the stalled peace process by creating "the space, the atmosphere" for new talks. He said he was hopeful of making serious progress, providing talks start rapidly before Israelis and Palestinians become too entrenched in their positions.

U.S. special envoy George Mitchell, Obama added, will travel back to the region next week to follow up on the president's Cairo speech.

Merkel pledged her country's full cooperation, crediting Obama's administration with providing a "unique opportunity" to breathe new life into the peace process.

"President Barack Obama held a significant speech [on June 4] in Cairo that can be the point of departure for many political activities, particularly with regards to the peace process in the Middle and Far East," Merkel said. "This is why we have also discussed the chronology in which progress can be achieved."

Other Issues

Obama used the news conference with Merkel to reaffirm his readiness to engage in "serious dialogue" with Iran, which he said could help avert a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. On the issue of nonproliferation, Obama also announced plans to travel to Russia in the coming months to discuss reducing both U.S. and Russian nuclear stockpiles.

The U.S. president touched on the global economic crisis, urging countries to join hands in fighting the downturn and vowing that the United States will not engage in protectionism.

The two leaders also discussed the closure of the controversial U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, which Obama has pledged to close by January.

German politicians have voiced reluctance to accept U.S. calls to take detainees after the facility is closed.

Obama said he had neither asked for nor received any firm commitments from Germany on taking terrorism suspects held there.

"We have spoken to the European Union about the possibilities of working with us and helping us in managing the closure of Guantanamo; Chancellor Merkel has been very open to discussions with us," Obama said. "We have not asked her for hard commitments, and she has not given us any hard commitments beyond having a serious discussion about -- are there ways that we can solve this problem?"

Obama and Merkel were due to travel to Buchenwald, the former Nazi concentration camp in which more than 56,000 prisoners perished. Obama, who is the first U.S. president to visit the camp, has described his visit as personal -- his great-uncle helped liberate a nearby satellite camp, Ohrdruf, in 1945.

After touring the U.S. military hospital in Landstuhl to support troops wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama was due to travel to France to mark the 65th anniversary of the D-Day landings in Normandy on June 6.

compiled by RFE/RL's Central Newsroom from agency and RFE/RL reports