NEWMARKET-ON-FERGUS, Ireland – President Bush won European support Saturday for his plan for more NATO involvement in Iraq and expressed confidence that “the bitter differences of the war are over” with European allies.
But after meeting with leaders from the 25-nation European Union, Bush also acknowledged that America’s image has suffered abroad. Polls in Europe show widespread opposition to the Iraq war and pervasive disdain for Bush.
Despite those differences, the European Union joined Bush in urging NATO to help train Iraqi security forces so that they can replace U.S. occupation troops in Iraq. Bush, who traveled later Saturday to Ankara, Turkey, will join leaders from the 26-nation NATO alliance at a meeting in Istanbul that opens today.
“NATO has the capability and I believe the responsibility to help the Iraqi people defeat the terrorist threat that’s facing their country,” Bush said at a joint press conference with EU leaders at Dromoland Castle, near Shannon.
The EU leaders offered to help in Iraq by assisting with democratic elections and looking for ways to ease the new government’s foreign debt.
The lingering tensions over the Iraq war were all too apparent outside the grounds of the 370-acre estate, where protesters shut down a major road leading to the castle. Bush had to delay his press conference when buses carrying White House reporters got stuck in the traffic backup.
Other large anti-war demonstrations were held in Dublin, Galway and Shannon.
“Listen, I care about the image of our country,” Bush said when asked about his unpopularity in Europe. “I don’t like it when the values of our country are misunderstood.”
At the same time, he shrugged off his personal unpopularity in Europe.
“I must confess that the first polls I worry about are those that are going to take place in early November this year,” he said, referring to the presidential election. “My job is to do my job.
“I’m going to do it the way I think is necessary. I’m going to set a vision. I will lead, and we’ll just let the chips fall where they may.”
In separate meetings with Bush, Irish President Mary McAleese and Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern both raised concerns about the prison abuse scandal in Iraq and the treatment of terror suspects at the U.S. detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. European leaders object to Bush’s view that the terrorism suspects are not protected by Geneva Conventions governing the treatment of wartime captives.
Ahern, who also serves as president of the European Union, sought to soften the criticism at his joint press conference with Bush and Romano Prodi of Italy, the president of the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm.
“These things unfortunately happened, and of course we wish they didn’t. But they do,” Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern said. “What’s important is how they’re dealt with.”
Bush and the EU leaders met under extraordinarily tight security that kept the protesters miles away.
The only noise at their outdoor news conference in the shadow of the 16th century castle came from mooing cows and a duck that landed in a pond directly behind Bush and his hosts.
American and European officials have good reason to want to put aside past differences.
An estimated $2 billion in trade and investment crosses the Atlantic daily. The 25 nations in the European Union represent about 455 million people.
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