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German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer called Saturday for Europe and the United States to join together in a broad effort to bring peace and stability to the Middle East.

A major push to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, fight terrorism and promote economic development in the Arab world would contribute toward overcoming U.S.-European rifts over the Iraq war, Fischer told an annual defense conference of major experts and officials, including U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and attended, among others, by officials from Israel, Jordan, Iran and the Palestinian Authority.

"Neither the United States nor Europe and the Middle East itself can tolerate the status quo in the Middle East any longer," Fischer said in speech opening the annual Munich gathering.

With Rumsfeld listening in the audience, Fischer strongly defended Germany's opposition to the Iraq war saying "we were not, and are still not, convinced of the validity of the reasons" - repeating phrasing that angered Rumsfeld at the conference a year ago, during the runup to war.

But he insisted that both camps must look ahead and confront what he called the world's greatest security threat: "destructive Jihadist terrorism," with its "epicenter" in the Middle East.

"We cannot counter the threat of this new totalitarianism by military means alone," Fischer said.

Broadly outlining his proposal, Fischer said the initiative should involved efforts to help Middle Eastern countries combat security threats, promote regional disarmament and foster democracy.

To help the region's economies, he suggested the creation of a Mediterranean free trade area and that Europe and the United States open their markets to more products from the area.

He also proposed a treaty under the umbrella of the NATO alliance pledging Middle Eastern countries to renouncing war and terrorism in return for Western promises of support for economic and social reforms.

The 40th annual Munich security conference, reputedly the "Davos" of the defense world, gets underway with a debate on the "Prospects of Transatlantic Relations".

Several hundred protesters demonstrated Friday against the conference, trying to block streets and tussling with police.

Police said they detained 28 protesters for suspected possession of illegal weapons, assault and resisting law enforcement officials. No one was injured during the protest in the center of the Bavarian capital, police said.

Police sealed off streets around the conference hotel. Conference opponents say they expect several thousand people for the main demonstration Saturday. The city of Munich has mobilized more than 3,500 police and security personnel to deal with any disruptions.

Some of the officials taking part, including Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld, were at pains to emphasize the strength of ties between Washington and Brussels, which were badly damaged by the Iraq war, at an informal NATO meeting here on Friday.

But scars were evident. Rumsfeld urged the Alliance to commit more troops and resources to Afghanistan and Iraq, but he was met with reluctance, notably on the part of France, to commit to any long term mission in Afghanistan.

In the afternoon, the talks turn to NATO, which new Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said Friday had "had a difficult year".

The Alliance's role in Afghanistan, which will be boosted in the provinces though probably not before a general election there in June. How it might provide security in Iraq will be at the center of debate.

De Hoop Scheffer, French Defence Minister Michele Alliot-Marie and her German counterpart Peter Struck will lead the talks at the luxury Hotel Bayerischer Hof.

Sunday's debate at the "Wehrkunde", as the conference was first known when it began in 1962, will be on "Future Developments in the Middle East" and is due to get underway with a speech by King Abdullah of Jordan.

Washington wants NATO to develop relations there to help build regional stability, and some six Middle East and northern African nations, including Israel and Egypt, are being invited to the Alliance summit in Istanbul in June.

With several Middle East officials present in Munich, Israel's security fence in and around the West Bank and its decision to dismantle some settlements promise lively discussion, as do developments in Iran.