Iran, Pakistan to be at the heart of Rice's Europe trip

( AFP ) - US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice begins in Berlin on Tuesday a new tour of Europe expected to focus on the nuclear standoff with Iran and Pakistan's political turmoil.

In Germany's capital, Rice will meet with her counterparts from Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China to discuss a proposal to impose new sanctions against Iran over its refusal to halt its disputed nuclear program.

Washington and its European Union allies are pushing for a third set of United Nations sanctions against Iran for defying international demands that it stop uranium enrichment activities that they fear could be used to make a bomb.

China and Russia, which have important trade relations with the Islamic republic, have been reluctant to back any more punitive measures.

"We don't yet have agreement on the elements or language of a (United Nations) resolution," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Friday.

"But we're pushing forward on it," he said, "and we're optimistic that we will eventually be able to get a resolution."

The US administration's own intelligence on Iran has made it difficult to convince Russia and China that Tehran deserves new sanctions.

A National Intelligence Estimate released in early December reported that Iran abandoned its nuclear weapons program in 2003, a conclusion that undermined President George W. Bush's warnings about the Iranian threat.

Iran has denied that it wants to build an atomic bomb, and maintains that its nuclear program is a peaceful drive to produce civilian energy.

While in Berlin, Rice will also have bilateral meetings with German officials on the country's military role in Afghanistan.

The chief US diplomat then heads to Switzerland on Wednesday to deliver a speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos.

"You can expect her in her remarks to talk about American foreign policy, the values on which it is based, and the importance of our pursuing those policies based on those values in a world that is increasingly complex in a number of different ways, whether that's on the political front or the security front or the economic front," McCormack said.

Rice will also meet in Zurich with Switzerland's foreign minister, Micheline Calmy-Rey.

In Davos, she will have bilateral meetings with presidents Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan and Hamid Karzai of neighboring Afghanistan, the State Department said.

Rice has pressed Musharraf to hold free and fair legislative elections, which were postponed from January 8 to February 18 following the assassination of opposition leader and former prime minister Benazir Bhutto.

The United States is now concerned that Al-Qaeda, which uses hideouts in lawless tribal areas of northwest Pakistan to launch attacks in Afghanistan, could destabilize nuclear-armed Pakistan.

The CIA has concluded that Al-Qaeda and allies of Pakistani tribal leader Baitullah Mehsud were responsible for Bhutto's assassination, and that they are also behind a new wave of violence threatening Pakistan's stability, The Washington Post reported Friday, citing the agency's director.

"You've got this nexus now that probably was always there in latency but is now active: a nexus between Al-Qaeda and various extremist and separatist groups," CIA chief Michael Hayden told the Post.

"It is clear that their intention is to continue to try to do harm to the Pakistani state as it currently exists," he said.

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