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Clinton Heads to Brussels Amid Instability in Middle East

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton heads to Brussels today for consultations with NATO partners on funding for Afghanistan, the threat to Turkey from Syria’s civil war and instability across the Middle East and North Africa.

The secretary started her 38th visit to Europe as the top U.S. diplomat with a stop in the Czech Republic, where she urged the country to reduce its dependence on Russian energy and told reporters in Prague today that she hopes a bid by Westinghouse Electric Co. for a $10 billion nuclear power plant expansion “will receive the utmost consideration.”

While in Brussels, Clinton and outgoing U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Marc Grossman will meet Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar and Army chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani before a two-day gathering of foreign ministers from members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Over a year and half beginning in early 2011, the U.S. and Pakistan suffered a series of crises in the relationship, starting with the arrest of a CIA contractor for shooting two Pakistanis and a furor in Islamabad over the White House raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound.

The strains reached a boiling point with the accidental killing of 24 Pakistani soldiers in a U.S. airstrike, which precipitated a half-year closing by Pakistan of NATO supply lines for the Afghan war.

Rebuilding Process

The meetings are part of a process of rebuilding the two countries’ partnership by focusing on a handful of areas of practical cooperation, said a U.S. diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity because the talks are private.

Clinton will propose specific ways in which the two sides can work together more closely on counter-terrorism, improving transit lines between Pakistan and Afghanistan, promoting reconciliation between insurgents and the Afghan government and stopping roadside bomb attacks.

The U.S. is especially keen to improve market access and commercial dealings with Pakistan, moving from a relationship based on aid to one built on trade, the U.S. official said.

The NATO foreign ministers’ meetings on Dec. 5-6 will focus in part on funding mechanisms for pledges by member countries to support Afghan security forces before and after international troops pull out in 2014.

Clinton will reiterate the message of “in together, out together,” the principle that partners in the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force will keep their commitments and support Afghan stability even as they withdraw, another State Department official said.

Turkey Missiles

Also on the agenda for NATO are discussions about deploying Patriot missile batteries in Turkey, a member of the 28-nation military alliance, for the first time in about a decade amid fears that Syria may launch punitive missile strikes against the country over its backing of rebels in the uprising that began early last year.

Turkey asked NATO for the Patriot system, designed to intercept aircraft or missiles, after weeks of talks about how to shore up security on its 900-kilometer (560-mile) border as the conflict in Syria deepens.

In Prague, Clinton warned Syria that the U.S. wouldn’t tolerate the use of chemical weapons in the conflict.

‘Red Line’

“This is a red line for the United States,” she told a news conference alongside her Czech counterpart, Karel Schwarzenberg. “I’m not going to telegraph in any specifics what we would do in the event of credible evidence that the Assad regime has resorted to using chemical weapons against their own people, but suffice it to say we are certainly planning to take action if that eventuality were to occur.”

Last week, Syrian warplanes attacked targets close to the Turkish border as officers from the U.S., Germany and the Netherlands arrived to evaluate possible sites for Patriot surface-to-air missile batteries.

Syria has called the Patriot plan “provocative,” and its allies Russia and Iran have protested what they regard as a first step toward implementing a no-fly zone or military action against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Russian President Vladimir Putin is in Turkey today for meetings including with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Turkey’s military has said the Patriots would be purely defensive and not be used to launch attacks or enforce a no-fly zone over Syria.

A State Department official traveling with Clinton said the U.S. is supporting Turkey’s request for Patriots, and that the provision of a missile defense system should not be seen as a shadow effort to set up a no-fly zone or a safe haven for Syrian rebels along the Turkish border.

Clinton’s visit to Prague also recognized the Czechs as a NATO ally that has contributed troops to U.S.-led missions in Afghanistan, Iraq and the Balkans. The Czechs are sharing expertise on mitigating threats from chemical weapons amid concerns that any such an arsenal may exist in Syria, she said.

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