US President George W. Bush looked into the eyes of AIDS patients in this country that has stemmed its once-spiraling infection rate and declared: "Life by life, village by village, Uganda is showing that AIDS can be defeated across Africa."
Speaking on Friday in the courtyard of an AIDS clinic where he met about two dozen patients, Bush touted his multibillion-dollar global initiative to target prevention and treatment to 14 nations hardest-hit by the pandemic, including 12 in Africa. And he praised Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni for his government's latest awareness campaign, which promotes the "A,B,C,D" of HIV -- "abstain," change "behavior," use "condoms," or "die."
"The AIDS virus does its worst harm in an atmosphere of secrecy and unreasoning fear," Bush said. "... The president of Uganda speaks the truth. And therefore you're overcoming the stigma of the disease, and you're lifting despair."
Bush also called Museveni "a strong advocate of free trade."
But he made no mention of Museveni's hints that he may try to change the constitution so he can run for a third term, or that political parties are banned from raising money, organizing or campaigning throughout the country.
And though Bush praised the Ugandan leader as a force for peace in Central Africa, the president steered clear of any mention of Uganda's involvement in the five-year civil war in neighboring Congo.
When that war erupted in August 1998, Uganda sent troops there to back rebels seeking to oust then-President Laurent Kabila. Uganda withdrew its troops in May, but human rights groups accuse it of continuing to fuel the fighting in eastern and northeastern Congo -- where thousands have been killed -- by arming Congolese factions in the region.
Amnesty International urged Bush to press the Ugandan government to end all military support to the groups. In a statement, the human rights group also called on Bush to back calls for a "truly robust international military force capable of protecting civilians" in Congo. UN troops deployed in Congo can only fire in self-defense and have not attempted to stem the violence.
The US has indicated that it will support UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan's recommendation to increase the UN peacekeeping force in Congo by 2,100 troops and strengthen its mandate.
"We are in discussions with the UN about sizing properly the force in the Congo and we've generally been supportive of making some alterations to that, if possible," national security adviser Condoleezza Rice told reporters during a briefing on Air Force One. " ... I think everybody understands that we need very much to seize the initiative."
Uganda was the fourth stop on Bush's five-nation tour of sub-Saharan Africa, which ended yesterday in Nigeria. Bush was greeted at the airport here by gyrating dancers and drummers in native garb, then past the first big crowds of his trip as thousands of people lined his motorcade route into town.
The president has been championing his five-year, US$15 billion AIDS plan at every stop of his Africa journey. But back in Washington, the Republican-controlled House was shortchanging the initiative. A House panel this week approved only two-thirds of the US$3 billion available for the first year of Bush's plan.
"We'll work with what we get, but the president believes very strongly in full funding of this," Rice said, adding that the White House was making calls to urge lawmakers to allocate the total amount authorized. "It's not as if there aren't good uses for the money, and so he's pushing very hard on Congress."