New German foreign minister to visit U.S.

Germany's new foreign minister will visit the United States next week, meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice just a week after Chancellor Angela Merkel's government took office as the two countries seek to "intensify" relations, the government said Thursday.

Frank Walter Steinmeier will travel to New York Monday and meet there with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and representatives of Jewish groups, Foreign Ministry spokesman Martin Jaeger said. On Tuesday, he will meet in Washington with Rice, her deputy Robert Zoellick and the national security adviser, Stephen Hadley.

Conservative leader Merkel took office Tuesday. She has shown few signs of a major foreign policy shift from her Social Democratic predecessor, Gerhard Schroeder, whose party is an equal partner in her new coalition government.

Steinmeier was Schroeder's chief of staff at the time when the former chancellor's vehement opposition to the U.S.-led Iraq war chilled relations, which Schroeder later patched up. Merkel on Wednesday underlined the importance of trans-Atlantic ties, saying during a visit to Brussels that relations with the U.S. "can be developed further."

"There is nothing to repair, as some people insinuate, but rather we would like to intensify some things," Jaeger said. Next week's talks, he said, are aimed partly at "identifying in what fields there may be common tasks over the coming weeks and months." Likely themes include developments in the Middle East and worries over Iran's nuclear program, an issue on which Germany under Schroeder played a leading role in European diplomatic efforts.

"Unfortunately, President (George W.) Bush is not in Washington that day," Jaeger said. No date has been set for a visit to Washington by Merkel herself, although one is expected early in the new year.

Merkel spent her first full day as chancellor Wednesday on a whirlwind European tour, making her first foreign visit to France, Germany's western neighbor and traditionally its strongest European Union partner, and Brussels, where she visited NATO and the EU. Merkel was traveling to London Thursday to meet British Prime Minister Tony Blair, whose country currently holds the rotating EU presidency, reports the AP. I.L.

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