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At G-8, Bush unveils Mideast democracy plan

SAVANNAH, Ga. -- President Bush met with Iraq's interim president yesterday and joined world leaders at the Group of Eight summit in releasing a plan to promote democracy in the Middle East.

Sitting next to Ghazi Mashal Ajil al-Yawer on Sea Island, Ga., Bush told the interim Iraqi president that "it's been a proud day for me" and cited the progress that has been made in Iraq since his administration launched the war that toppled Saddam Hussein.

"I really never thought I'd be sitting next to an Iraqi president of a free country a year and a half ago, and here you are," Bush told Yawer, a Sunni Muslim and a former member of the US-appointed Iraqi Governing Council. "Having visited with you, having talked to you, having listened to you, I have got great faith in the future of your country, because you believe in the hopes and aspirations of the Iraqi people. It's been a proud day for me. I'm glad you're here."

Wearing traditional robes, Yawer thanked Bush and the American people for the sacrifices made on behalf of his country.

"Mr. President, I'd like to express to you the commitment of the Iraqi people to move toward democracy," Yawer said. "We're determined to have a free, democratic, federal Iraq, a country that is a source of stability to the Middle East, which is very important for the rest of the world."

Yawer's words echoed the position of the Bush administration on Iraq, which got a significant boost Tuesday when the UN Security Council gave unanimous approval to a resolution endorsing a sovereign government in Iraq secured by a multinational military force. The promise of that resolution is threatened by Kurdish fears that it does not go far enough to protect their rights, but the Bush administration tried to carry the momentum from Tuesday's UN vote and promoted its revised "Broader Middle East and North Africa Initiative."

That initiative, released after Bush and other G-8 leaders of the world's industrialized countries met with officials from seven Arab nations, repeats the president's call for government reform in the Middle East, which he first outlined in November 2003.

Bush's speech back then was met with skepticism and anger in much of the Arab world, whose leaders said that the president did not consult with them in putting forward a vision for their region. They also saw the bloodshed in Iraq and the US refusal to condemn Israeli's actions against the Palestinians as proof that the United States could not be trusted.

The tone of the initiative released yesterday, however, was not as strident as the president's remarks in November, and it incorporated Arab views.

A statement from the group read, in part: "We welcome the desire and commitment to continue reform and modernization expressed by leaders in the region. Through consultation and dialogue with leaders and peoples in the region, and in response to reform priorities identified by the region, including by the Arab League, we have developed an initial plan of support for reform."

G-8 leaders also discussed a broader role for NATO in Iraq. "We believe NATO ought to be involved," Bush said at an appearance with Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain . "We will work with our NATO friends to at least continue the role that now exists, and hopefully expand it somewhat."

President Jacques Chirac of France balked at that, however, saying that "it does not fit" NATO's mission to participate more broadly in Iraq. Chirac added that he will be "quite reserved toward" any proposal to expand NATO's role beyond supporting some of the coalition forces already serving in Iraq.

France and Germany have said they will not send forces to Iraq, complicating any effort to get more international military support through NATO. A senior administration official, briefing reporters on condition of anonymity, said Blair and Bush both know how tough it will be get NATO more involved in Iraq, but will continue making the case.

"They both understand that there are constraints on NATO's role, both in terms of number of troops and constraints in the form of continuing French and German hesitation about supplying additional troops," the official said. "But nevertheless, NATO is in Iraq. It is supporting the Polish-led multinational division, and there may be things that NATO can do in addition to its current supportive role."

The Middle East democracy initiative released by the G-8 leaders calls for the establishment of a Forum for the Future that would "provide a ministerial framework for our ongoing dialogue and engagement on political, economic, and social reform in a spirit of mutual respect."

The initiative would also: establish a finance group to support small businesses in the region and those run by women; provide literacy skills to 20 million people by 2015; seek to improve the region's business climate; support parliamentary exchanges and training; and assist the region in pursuing judicial reforms.

Afghanistan, Algeria, Bahrain, Jordan, Tunisia, Turkey, and Yemen were all represented at the G-8 summit where the initiative was discussed yesterday, but two of the region's most important nations, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, did not send any officials.

Leaders of those countries continue to be angered by the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal and by the US refusal to condemn Israeli tactics in its dispute with the Palestinians. But a senior administration official, briefing reporters at the summit on condition of anonymity, said the absence of Egypt and Saudi Arabia does not mean those countries won't work with the United States to spur reform.

"You can't make much of the attendance list," the official said, pointing out that no country in the region has said outright that it does not support US goals for the area. "I think the notion that if you're here you're fully supportive, if you're not here you not supportive, it actually doesn't work that way."

But Chirac said any efforts at broad reform in the region will be hampered by the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.

"Clearly, any approach to the entire problem presupposes a prerequisite, which is true progress -- which we do not see today -- in a return to peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians," said Chirac, who has clashed with the Bush administration on Iraq.

The Bush administration has had varying levels of public involvement in the Arab-Israeli conflict and most recently supported a controversial proposal by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of Israel to unilaterally withdraw settlements from the Gaza Strip, along with a few from the West Bank.

A statement released by the G-8 leaders yesterday said, "Our support for reform in the region will go hand in hand with our support for a just, comprehensive, and lasting settlement to the Arab-Israeli conflict."

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