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Bush hails NATO pledge of more support in Iraq

BRUSSELS, Belgium—President Bush, on a European tour to heal transatlantic relations bruised badly by his invasion of Iraq, won a unanimous pledge Tuesday from NATO that all 26 member nations will contribute modest, largely symbolic support to help stabilize Iraq.

Bush also sought to quell European concerns that he's itching to take military action against Iran over its nuclear ambitions, calling such fears "simply ridiculous." However, he quickly added: "Having said that, all options are on the table," a line he's often used when asked about dealing with Iran and one that left his ultimate message to Tehran ambiguous.

The president and White House officials were all smiles when NATO officials announced a unanimous pledge to increase the number of trainers of Iraqi security forces and to donate more financially to the mission. U.S. officials hailed the contributions as a sign that the White House and European capitals are putting their differences over Iraq behind them.

"Every contribution matters, and every country ought to be proud of the fact that they're contributing to the world's newest democracy," Bush said during a news conference. " ... And I am grateful."

But NATO's gift looks smaller when unwrapped; in fact, NATO and White House officials refused to provide details of how much countries will contribute, preferring to emphasize only the fact of agreement.

"I'm really reluctant to announce figures for other countries," said a senior administration official who briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity. "But if you go to NATO. ... I think they've even got a fact sheet today with numbers on them."

Not so, said NATO.

"We're not giving one (summary) because it changes every day," said a NATO official who spoke only on condition of anonymity. "And some governments don't like us doing it. They prefer to do it themselves."

Officials did say that they hope NATO's contributions will increase the number of military instructors in Iraq to 160 from 100 currently, with 17 countries providing personnel. Iraq hopes to train a homegrown security force of some 270,000 troops, a goal critical to any U.S. exit strategy.

But France and Germany continued to refuse to send anyone to Iraq, as did Spain, Belgium and Greece.

Instead, France will contribute one officer to the Iraq training mission—in Brussels. He'll be stationed at NATO headquarters "validating equipment provisions," the NATO official said.

Separate from NATO and European Union efforts, France has agreed to train 1,500 Iraqi military police in Qatar.

Germany has agreed to train Iraqi military police in the United Arab Emirates and contribute $652,000, according to an independent published summary that officials cited. Belgium is sending 10 driving instructors to the German-led mission in the United Arab Emirates.

Still, administration officials didn't look on the contributions as small change.

"We're very pleased that we have not only unity in theory, but, on the question of Iraq, for the first time in three years, we now have unity of purpose," the senior administration official said.

Independent analysts aren't so sure.

"I would call that a stingy gesture of goodwill," said Charles Kupchan, director of Europe Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, an academic research center with offices in Washington.

John Hulsman, a Europe analyst for the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington, said NATO's pledge "is better than nothing," but not by much. "I wouldn't strike up the brass band. The rift remains. And this might be as good as it gets."

Bush's visit to NATO headquarters was part of a busy second day in Europe in which he met with Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and European Union leaders.

At one point, Bush reiterated his objection to European intentions to lift a 15-year-old arms embargo on China.

"I said there is a deep concern in our country that a transfer of weapons would be a transfer of technology to China, which would change the balance of relations between China and Taiwan, and that's a concern," Bush said.

Bush heads for Germany Wednesday, where he'll meet with German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, visit with U.S. military personnel in Wiesbaden and participate in a roundtable discussion with young professionals in Mainz.

A group of 24 young leaders, both local and from the United States and picked by German-American groups, will participate in the town-hall-type meeting.

Eric Staal, spokesman for the German branch of Republicans Abroad, said they'd have about 100 Bush supporters—half Germans, half Americans—cheering for the president Wednesday.

"I'm sure we'll be far outnumbered, but it's important for him to know that there is a substantial amount of support for the war on terror among everyday people here," Staal said. "I think he'll find an audience here that's ready to welcome him."

The streets through Mainz were already being closed Tuesday evening, and protesters were being kept away. Because of security concerns, 10,000 German police will be on guard.

Frankfurt International Airport—one of Europe's busiest—will be shut down for Air Force One. The skies above Mainz will be kept clear of airplanes during Bush's visit.

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

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): BUSH

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