Bush hails friends reunited

GEORGE Bush, the United States President, and Gerhard Schröder, the German chancellor, buried the hatchet over Iraq yesterday and vowed to rebuild a frayed partnership they said was vital to the transatlantic alliance.

Standing side by side in Mainz, where Mr Bush’s father once called on West Germany to become a "partner in leadership", the tone was warm, although the talk of past division was frank.

"Europe is America’s closest ally," Mr Bush said on his second stop of a three-nation European tour. "In order for us to have good relations with Europe, we have to have good relations with Germany."

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The remarks were a flat contradiction of the go-it-alone approach that characterised Mr Bush’s first term, when Washington labelled Germany and France "old Europe" and invaded Iraq with help from smaller, more supportive European states.

Although Mr Bush’s rhetoric has not been backed up by any major transatlantic initiatives, it will be welcomed in Berlin and other European capitals as a sign the Iraq row is fading and a new, more balanced relationship is possible.

"No-one is denying there were differences in the past, but that is the past," insisted Mr Schrder, who angered the White House by tapping anti-Bush sentiment to win re-election in 2002.

Before heading to a spirited rally at a US base across the Rhine in Wiesbaden, Mr Bush made some of his most conciliatory remarks of a European trip which started in Brussels on Sunday and moves to Bratislava today for meetings with another opponent of the Iraq war, the Russian president, Vladimir Putin.

Among areas of co-operation Mr Bush stressed were efforts to prevent Iran developing nuclear weapons. He also thanked Germany for helping to train Iraqi police and forgiving debts, and said he accepted Mr Schrder’s reluctance to send troops to the insurgency-riven country.

Mr Schrder, too, highlighted the positive, praising a new commitment he perceived in Mr Bush’s efforts to help resolve the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. Ahead of Mr Bush’s visit, concerns were rife that ties would be further strained by US opposition to European Union plans for a lifting of an arms embargo on China and divergent strategies to curb Iran’s nuclear programme.

But comments in Brussels and Mainz seemed to suggest a softening of Washington’s tone, if not a change in its stance.

Mr Bush continues to say he cannot rule out military options against Tehran, but he has repeatedly expressed a preference for diplomacy in recent days.

"Iran is not Iraq," Mr Bush said. "We just started the diplomatic efforts and I want to thank our friends for taking the lead."

Britain, France and Germany are offering Tehran economic incentives in exchange for limitations on its nuclear programme, which Tehran denies has a military purpose.

While endorsing those talks, Mr Bush has refused European requests to join them.

Although the German-American rift appears to be healing, demonstrators in Mainz were a reminder Mr Bush remains highly unpopular here.

About 12,000 protesters - twice as many as predicted - marched outside the security zone, carrying posters reading "Bush Go Home" and "Warmonger".

Polls show many Germans do not trust Mr Bush, who told a Berlin audience in May 2002 that he had "no war plans on my desk", ten months before the Iraq invasion.