The Group of Eight stressed the need to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict when they launched an initiative on Wednesday for political and economic reform in the broader Middle East region.
"Our support for reform in the region will go hand-in-hand with our support for a just, comprehensive and lasting settlement to the Arab-Israeli-conflict" based on UN resolutions, said a statement issued by the G-8 major industrial nations at their summit in Sea Island, Georgia.
As part of the drive, the so-called Quartet that is mediating in Middle East peace efforts will return to the region by the end of the month, the G-8 agreed on Wednesday, according to G-8 sources.
The sources said the group had agreed the Quartet -- the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations -- would provide practical help including assisting with municipal elections in the occupied Palestinian territories.
They said that a separate statement on the Quartet's return to the region would be issued later on Wednesday.
US President Bush, whose war in Iraq was deeply opposed by allies such as France and Germany, pushed the G-8's Middle East initiative as a means of moving on to wider reform in the region after the war.
The G-8 is made up of the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Canada and Russia.
The Bush administration has been pushing the plan with the argument that reform in the Arab world is the best antidote to religious extremism and Arab hostility to the United States.
Despite the surge in violence in Iraq and a scandal over abuse of Iraqi prisoners by US soldiers in April that has also hit his popularity at home five months before US presidential elections, Bush views Iraq as a potential catalyst for reform in the region.
An early draft of the plan that emerged several months ago drew heavy criticism from Arab nations because it did not mention the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and was viewed as paternalistic.
The statement issued on Wednesday said "successful reform depends on the countries in the region and change should not and cannot be imposed from outside."
The statement said that the "resolution of long-lasting, often bitter disputes, especially the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, is an important element of progress in the region."
Support for Iraq elections
But it noted that "at the same time, regional conflicts must not be an obstacle for reforms. Indeed reforms may make a significant contribution toward resolving them."
The plan, titled "Partnership for Progress and a Common Future with the Region of the Broader Middle East and North Africa," also pledged support for the electoral process in Iraq.
Iraq is to start preparing for elections by January after power is handed to an interim government on June 30, a transfer endorsed by a unanimous UN Security Council vote on Tuesday.
The UN vote was hailed by Bush and his key ally in the war, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, as a show of international unity that meant the divisions over the Iraq war were behind them.
An accompanying document to the G-8 communique outlined a series of efforts to help boost democracy and the economy in the broader Middle East region.
The plan calls for the setting up of a "forum for the future" to bring together G-8 and regional ministers regularly for talks on political, economic and social reform.
It also includes proposals to launch microfinancing for small business, boost literacy levels in the region, set up a program to coordinate programs on democracy and support efforts to hold free and fair elections.
(China Daily via agencies, June 10, 2004)