Mon, Nov 05, 2007 - Page 7 News List

Bush to host high-stakes visitors

RED CARPET TREATMENT A raft of issues are open for discussion, but Russia and Iran's nuclear program are likely to top the agenda when the French and German leaders visit


US President George W. Bush rolls out the red carpet this week for French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, eager for their views on Iran's nuclear program and Russia.

In a high-stakes week of diplomacy, which will also see Bush host Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, comes as Washington seeks more sanctions against Tehran and worries about the health of democratic reforms in Moscow.

Bush will host his French counterpart at the White House tomorrow for an official dinner, then squire him on Wednesday to the Mount Vernon estate of the first US president, George Washington.

The two leaders were expected to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the birth of the Marquis de Lafayette, the French soldier and diplomat who played a key role in the American Revolution.

Merkel was to get an even juicier diplomatic plum, arriving on Friday for a weekend stay at Bush's beloved "Prairie Chapel" ranch in Texas, a prize reserved for especially close allies.

Bush and his guests will have a full diplomatic plate: "Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Middle East Peace Process, Kosovo, Burma, Afghanistan and Darfur, Trade, NATO, transatlantic relations, climate and energy security" are also on the menu, according to White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe.

But Iran, which has denied US charges that it seeks nuclear weapons bucked international pressure to freeze uranium enrichment, and Russia, including Moscow's relations with Tehran, and its political future, will dominate.

US officials worry that term-limited Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has suggested he may become prime minister after stepping down next year, is backing away from democratic reforms.

Bush, who spoke to Putin by telephone two weeks ago, "wants to hear from both Sarkozy and Merkel about their recent meetings with Putin, and how they think things are developing with our Russian friends," Johndroe said.

The US president, who recently imposed new US sanctions on Iran, wants the UN Security Council to approve a third round of its own punitive measures and needs France -- a permanent council member -- and Germany, which has taken a large role in discussions with Tehran, to be on board.

US officials say Bush hopes that Russia, angry at Washington over plans to deploy a missile defense system in its Eastern European backyard, will not oppose the move.

The meetings also highlight the evolving relationship between the Bush administration and France and Germany, which fiercely opposed the March 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, but have since changed leaders.

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