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German chancellor wants closer US ties

On 1st foreign trip, Merkel seeks to heal NATO rift

BRUSSELS -- Angela Merkel reached out yesterday to the United States in her first foreign trip as German chancellor, saying it was time to heal the trans-Atlantic rift caused by Germany's opposition to the US-led war in Iraq.

After meeting with NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, Merkel praised the alliance's role in solving world problems and spoke of closer relations with the Bush administration.

''I believe the ties between the United States and Germany can be developed further," she said.

However, she also said she would not allow Germans to train Iraqi troops inside Iraq, sticking with the policy of her predecessor, Gerhard Schroeder, who was a foe of the war. She said Germany would still provide such training in other Middle East countries in the Middle East.

Although NATO's members split over Iraq, Merkel said the alliance's 26 nations must return to common political purpose.

''NATO should be the place where people turn first with member states to discuss political issues," she said.

Later in the day, Merkel met with senior European Union officials and pledged her support for the proposed EU constitution, which was rejected by French and Dutch voters this year.

''Europe needs the constitution," she said, making a brief appearance with European Parliament President Josep Borrell.

However, Merkel avoided taking a position on some of the EU's most divisive issues, including how to allocate the EU's budget and whether Turkey should become a full member.

The EU is deeply split both over the budget and, more widely, over whether and how the bloc should embrace market-orientated reforms to ward off economic competition from rising powers like China.

Merkel said she would not comment on those issues until she sees proposals on solving the impasse to be put forward by Britain, which holds the EU's rotating presidency until Dec. 31.

It was her inaugural appearance on the world stage after being confirmed by Germany's parliament Tuesday as head of a new, unwieldy right-left coalition based on September's inconclusive election and months of political haggling.

Before heading to Belgium, Merkel met with French President Jacques Chirac in Paris and stressed the importance of Germany maintaining strong ties with France.

Merkel said her choice of Paris as the first stop on her tour of European capitals ''reflects the deep conviction that a good German-French relationship, a friendly, a deep relationship, is not only important for our two countries but also necessary and desirable for Europe."

France is watching to see whether Merkel's expected efforts to invigorate ties with Washington will come at the expense of relations between Paris and Berlin.

Merkel said she and Chirac would continue the regular informal meetings the French leader and Schroeder launched in 2001. The first is expected to take place in Berlin early next month.

''To function well, Europe must have a truly solid Franco-German axis. . . . Experience proves it: If we don't get along, then the system is blocked," Chirac said at their joint news conference.

Merkel's foreign policy will be constrained by the presence of Schroeder's Social Democrats as equal partners with her conservatives in the new German coalition government. Social Democrat Frank Walter Steinmeier is the foreign minister.

Merkel will travel to London for talks with Blair today and to Poland next month. Steinmeier visits Italy, Spain, Poland and the Netherlands, as well as the United States before the end of the year. Merkel is expected to travel to Washington soon afterward.

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