Reuters: U.S. President George W. Bush on Friday backed an initiative by Russian President Vladimir Putin to end a stalemate over Iran’s nuclear project as the two leaders held talks that appeared to avoid areas of open disagreement. By Steve Holland
PUSAN, South Korea (Reuters) – U.S. President George W. Bush on Friday backed an initiative by Russian President Vladimir Putin to end a stalemate over Iran’s nuclear project as the two leaders held talks that appeared to avoid areas of open disagreement.
Hounded at home over Iraq, Bush pressed ahead with his foreign policy agenda, but his Iraq policy may have sustained a new setback with reports — disputed by the White House — that South Korea planned to withdraw some troops.
Bush and Putin talked about Iran, North Korea’s nuclear program, Syria, the Middle East, Chechnya, Iraq, bird flu and other issues during a hour-long meeting before attending the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit.
The Russian plan would allow Iran to continue nuclear fuel production if it shifted its most critical stage, uranium enrichment, to Russia as part of a joint venture.
Three European Union powers — Germany, Britain and France — which led now-stalled nuclear talks with Iran, and the United States have tentatively approved the proposal to overcome a stalemate over Iran’s nuclear project.
“The president thanked President Putin for their position and thought that the initiative that they put forward as far as recovery of fuel … was one that is helpful to the process,” said Bush presidential counselor Dan Bartlett.
Western countries suspect Iran of seeking nuclear weapons under the cover of a civilian atomic program, which Tehran denies, saying it wants only to generate electricity.
Bartlett said the two leaders did not discuss taking Iran to the U.N. Security Council for possible sanctions if diplomacy fails.
Russia has been leery of such an outcome.
Ties between the two leaders have not been as close as they were in Bush’s first term because of U.S. worries that Russia is backsliding on democratic reforms, a subject Bartlett said did not come up at their fifth meeting this year.
“Our position is well known on that,” he said.
Bush and Putin chatted amiably before a pool of reporters in advance of their talks and Bartlett said the good will continued behind closed doors.
“Hey Vladimir, how are you? It’s good to see you,” Bush told Putin at a Pusan hotel. “I always enjoy a chance to have a good discussion with you.”
Bush and Putin were united on the need for North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons program and for Syria to cooperate with an investigation to find the killers of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri.
In what appeared to be a new setback for his Iraq policy, a South Korea’s Defense Ministry said it plans to reduce the number of its troops in Iraq by about a third and to start withdrawing those soldiers from the first half of next year.
Bush, meeting South Korean President Roh Myun-hoo on Thursday, had hailed South Korea’s contributions in Iraq and senior aides pointed out the South Koreans, at more than 3,000, were the third largest foreign contingent in Iraq, behind the United States and Britain.
The White House insisted there had been on official confirmation of the report, and Bartlett said U.S. officials had checked with South Korean officials and been told there had been no change in the country’s policy.
Bush also sat down for talks with leaders of the Association of South East Asian Nations as well as the leaders of Peru, Canada and Mexico.
Bush left it to his top aides to respond to increasingly bitter attacks from Democrats who accuse him of manipulating U.S. intelligence to justify the Iraq war.
Democrats have been emboldened by sinking American support for the war and have stepped up charges that Bush and his administration hyped intelligence to justify the war.
The White House, in an unusual step, invoked the name of liberal American moviemaker Michael Moore to dismiss criticism of Bush’s Iraq policy by one of the most hawkish members of the U.S. Congress, Pennsylvania Democratic Rep. John Murtha.
Murtha said on Thursday the United States cannot accomplish anything further militarily in Iraq. “It is time to bring them home,” he said.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan said “it is baffling that he is endorsing the policy positions of Michael Moore and the extreme liberal wing of the Democratic Party.”
Moore is a liberal movie producer and sharp Bush critic whose documentary “Fahrenheit 9/11” criticized the Iraq war.