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UN Chief Optimistic On Israeli-Palestinian

UN Chief Brings Back Impression Of Israeli-Palestinian Optimism From Middle East Trip

United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan said today that he had come back from visiting the Middle East last week with the impression that both Israelis and Palestinians feel optimistic over moves to end violence after more than four years of open conflict, although they realize that the situation is very fragile.

"Both sides have to work very hard, and the international community should play its role in assisting the Palestinians in strengthening their security apparatus and their reform, and in ensuring that their economic and social structures are strengthened," he told a news conference in New York.

He also said that progress was being made towards the withdrawal of all Syrian troops from Lebanon. "They have committed to full withdrawal, and we will be working with them to ensure that it is done," he added, noting that he would be meeting with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad at an Arab League summit tomorrow in Algiers.

"We need to make sure that the withdrawal is managed and organized in such a way that the Lebanese security forces move in and fill the vacuum, to make sure that no vacuum is created. And so we are making progress, but we need to handle it very carefully," he declared.

Security Council resolution 1559 calls for withdrawing all foreign forces from Lebanon, disbanding all militias and extending Government control over the whole country and Mr. Annan has said he expects full withdrawal to take place before Lebanese parliamentary elections scheduled for between mid-April and mid-May.

In another regional conflict where the UN is engaged in assisting a transition to democracy, Mr. Annan's Special Representative for Iraq, Ashraf Qazi, entered his eighth week of talks with political, social and religious leaders from across the spectrum in a bid to ensure that all sectors, including Sunni Arabs who did not vote in recent elections, are included in the next phase of the transition, including writing a new constitution.

Mr. Qazi met today with Interim President Ghazi Yawer, Interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, Interim Deputy Prime Minister Barham Saleh, and the President of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, one of the leasing Shiite Arab parties, Abdul Aziz Al Hakim.

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