BERLIN (AP) — Conflicts in Syria and Mali, as well as Iran's nuclear program, are expected to take center stage as top global diplomats and defense officials gather Friday in Munich for an annual security conference.

U. S. Vice President Joe Biden joins a dozen heads of state and government and 70 foreign and defense ministers for the Munich Security Conference opening Friday. Biden stopped Friday morning in the German capital of Berlin for talks with Chancellor Angela Merkel before traveling on to Munich.

The 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; the foreign minister and defense minister of France, which has combat troops in Mali aiding the military there in battling Islamic extremists; and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov of Russia, which has supported the Syrian regime despite pressure to break with President Bashar Assad.

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.

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 will not 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.

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

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