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Bush, Merkel make an effort to mend fences despite disagreements

WASHINGTON—President Bush rejected a suggestion Friday from new German Chancellor Angela Merkel that the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba be closed.

But their gently worded disagreement during a joint news conference did little to dampen the warm spirits they displayed toward each other during Merkel's first visit to the White House in her new job.

The United States and Germany are seeking to improve relations that had soured because of former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's fierce opposition to the Iraq war and generally bad blood between him and Bush.

Merkel was on a mission to make nice but also to show her independence, especially regarding Bush's detainee prison at Guantanamo, which is wildly unpopular in Western Europe. She did so by raising the issue during her 45-minute Oval Office meeting with Bush and acknowledging it publicly in a subsequent news conference. Merkel's opposition to the prison was no surprise, as she had outlined her objections in a German magazine interview before arriving in Washington.

"Yes, she brought up the subject, and I can understand why she brought it up, because there's some misconceptions about Guantanamo," Bush said after their meeting.

"Guantanamo is a necessary part of protecting the American people," Bush contended, "and so long as the war on terror goes on, and so long as there's a threat, we will inevitably need to hold people that would do ourselves harm in a system ... in which people will be treated humanely ..."

Speaking in German, Merkel said she and Bush discussed the issue "openly" and that she agreed with him on the nature and dimension of the terrorist threat. But she added that Germany and other European nations "need to come up with convincing proposals as to how we ought to deal with detainees."

Bush said the United States and Germany still disagree over the Iraq war, despite the change in chancellors.

"It's been a difficult issue in our relationship and I fully understand that," he said. "But in spite of disagreements, we share the desire for the Iraqi people to live in freedom."

He said he and Merkel are united on what to do about Iran's push to resume uranium enrichment. Both said diplomacy is the best way forward and endorsed hauling Iran before the U.N. Security Council.

"We should not prejudge the strategy in the Security Council until they get to the Security Council," Bush said. "What we're doing now is beginning to lay out the strategy of what happens in the Security Council. ... We consult, we talk, we strategize as to how to achieve an important objective, which is ... for Iran not to have a nuclear weapon."

Bush appeared relaxed with Merkel, a far cry from his stiff, edgy body language during meetings with Schroeder. Their relationship got so bad that Bush sometimes refused to take Schroeder's phone calls.

Bush felt comfortable enough with Merkel to needle her about something they have in common: "We both didn't exactly landslide our way into office," he said, referring to his contested election in 2000 and her close race last November.

The president, who stated early in his administration that he looked into Russian President Vladimir Putin's eye and found someone who's straightforward and trustworthy, left his meeting with good vibrations about Merkel.

"She's smart, she's plenty capable. She's got kind of a spirit to her that's appealing," he said toward the end of the news conference. "I'm looking forward to consultations, visits, contacts, phone calls, all the things you do. And now I'm going to take her to lunch."


(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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

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