Germany: International cooperation in Mali could make it regional "anchor of stability"

International cooperation in Mali could help make the country an "anchor of stability" in the region, Germany's defense minister said Friday, urging nations to look at the mission as an example of how improved coordination can have long term benefits.

Addressing a gathering of the world's top diplomats and defense officials to open the Munich Security Conference, Defense Minister Thomas de Maiziere said in times of growing cutbacks to military spending, NATO, the European Union, the U.S. and others need to adopt a "strategy of resolute pragmatism" — pooling resources and contributing what they can, when they can.

In Mali, for example, many nations are cooperating, including Germany, which has provided military transport aircraft to take forces from the 15-nation West African regional group known as ECOWAS to Mali's capital, Bamako; France, which has combat troops on the ground helping the local forces in their fight against Islamic extremists; and the U.S., which is helping move French troops and equipment into the country and flying refueling missions.

Going forward, de Maiziere said, the mixture of the U.N., NATO and the EU along with cooperation with local and regional forces as the situation dictates "seems to be an approach we might put to more frequent use."

"In Mali, too, the cooperation between ECOWAS, France and the EU has started to that effect," he said. "If such a cooperation is successful it might serve as an anchor of stability with far-reaching effects on the region."

In addition to Mali, the conflict in Syria and Iran's nuclear program are expected to take center stage during the three-day conference, being attended by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, a dozen heads of state and government and 70 foreign and defense ministers.

Biden stopped Friday morning in the German capital of Berlin for talks with Chancellor Angela Merkel before traveling on to Munich, where he told reporters his message was that without a strong Europe, "it is not conceivable how America's interests can be achieved around the world."

The Munich conference, in its 49th year, is renowned as a setting where senior officials are able to address policy issues in an informal setting.

Others expected include Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi; France's foreign minister; and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov of Russia, which has supported the Syrian regime despite pressure to break with President Bashar Assad.

French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian bowed out at the last minute to accompany President Francois Hollande to visit Mali personally on Saturday.

President Barack Obama wants to make Asia the focus of U.S. foreign policy in his second administration, reflecting the region's growing economic power and the rise of China.

De Maiziere suggested that the EU is also focusing more on the Pacific, and said "the USA should not consider their relations to Asia to be in contrast with our trans-Atlantic roots."

"Quite the contrary," he said. "What prevents us from building bridges together? We should consider joint trans-Atlantic options for cooperation in the Pacific."

But the Munich conference is expected to be dominated by the crises in the Middle East and North Africa and concerns in Europe about Washington's ability to stave off a financial crisis at home.

Acknowledging those issues, Biden urged the Iranians in an interview published Friday by Munich's Sueddeutsche Zeitung newspaper to resume international talks on their controversial nuclear program.

Biden said Washington won't permit the Iranians to develop nuclear weapons, describing an Iranian bomb as a "threat to the national security of the United States." Iran insists its nuclear program is entirely peaceful, but suspicion is widespread that the goal is to build a bomb.

During the Munich conference, Biden is also expected to meet with Syria's main opposition leader, Moaz al-Khatib, and Lakhdar Brahimi, the international peace envoy for Syria.

This week, al-Khatib broke with most opposition figures by declaring he was willing to negotiate with members of Assad's regime to bring a peaceful end to the country's civil war.

The U.S., its Western allies and most opposition groups insist Assad must step down first, a position that Syria's longtime ally Russia has strongly opposed.


Associated Press correspondents Robert H. Reid and Geir Moulson contributed to this report.