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Germany ready to expand role in rebuilding Iraq, Schroeder says

BERLIN—Germany, which helped lead European opposition to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, told Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Friday that it's ready to expand its role in rebuilding the country after last Sunday's largely successful elections.

The pledge from German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder came on the first day of Rice's whirlwind trip through Europe to patch up the worst transatlantic rift since World War II.

Rice, who spent a frenetic day hopping from London to Berlin, was received warmly in both capitals, suggesting that Europeans, too, are interested in a diplomatic cease-fire.

Many deep differences remain, however.

Rice was forced to repeatedly downplay suspicions here, raised by recent tough talk from President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, that Washington plans to overthrow the government in Iran as it did Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq.

A U.S. attack on Iran to prevent it from getting nuclear weapons "is simply not on the agenda at this point in time," Rice said at a London news conference after meeting British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Germany, along with Russia and France, led international opposition to the Iraq war, prompting Bush and Blair to invade without explicit U.N. Security Council approval.

Rice is widely reported to have once said the United States should "forgive Russia, ignore Germany and punish France" for their opposition.

But at a news conference in Schroeder's vast glass-and-stone offices here, he and Rice exchanged praise and small jokes and said they were ready to work together on issues from Iran to Israeli-Palestinian peace.

"We are very much agreed" on the need to stabilize Iraq "irrespective of what one thought about the military intervention in Iraq in the first place," Schroeder said.

Germany is training Iraqi police and military personnel in the United Arab Emirates, "and I have declared the country's readiness to not just continue with these projects but, if desired, to also expand upon them," he said.

Schroeder gave no details. Germany, like France, remains steadfast in refusing to put its troops in Iraq.

The Iraqi elections proceeded with less violence and chaos than many in Europe expected. Some who criticized the war are praising Iraq's rough exercise in democracy.

Rice, who described herself as "on a bit of a whirlwind tour," went nonstop in trying to lay the foundations of a post-Iraq war foreign policy.

She met with Blair over breakfast to plan strategy in Iraq and Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, conferred with Schroeder, conducted four television interviews, held two lengthy news conferences, convened a roundtable with opinion leaders in London and greeted staff at the U.S. Embassy there.

Bush will travel to Europe later this month, where his itinerary includes a Feb. 23 meeting with Schroeder in Mainz, Germany.

On Iran, European fears about U.S. action have been stoked by Bush's criticism of the theocratic regime during his State of the Union address Wednesday and Cheney's recent comment that Israel might act against Iran's nuclear program if that program isn't stopped.

Rice has harshly criticized the Tehran government and suggested that the United States wants to see it replaced with a democracy, stopping just short of openly advocating regime change. She's been far more aggressive on the issue than her predecessor, Colin Powell.

State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said in Washington on Wednesday that "we do not have a policy of regime change towards Iran."

But Rice has passed up a half-dozen chances in the last two days to repeat that formulation.

A senior State Department official traveling with Rice acknowledged that Bush and Rice "have made much more explicit that we support the aspirations of the Iranian people to control their own government." He spoke on condition of anonymity.

Schroeder avoided an opportunity to criticize Bush's blunt challenge to Iran as a complication to European diplomacy toward Tehran.

"The president's heart is where it should be, namely with the democrats" in the country, he said.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050202 RICE trip

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