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NATO: Bush And Havel Hold Talks, See Eye-To-Eye Ahead Of Summit In Prague

U.S. President George W. Bush, the first foreign NATO leader to arrive in Prague ahead of tomorrow's alliance summit, met with Czech President Vaclav Havel today for talks that touched on Iraq and the future of NATO.

Prague, 20 November 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Czech President Vaclav Havel says he personally favors the adoption of a common NATO statement on the issue of Iraq. He made the comment at a joint news conference today with U.S. President George W. Bush on the eve of NATO's two-day summit in Prague. "President [Bush] explained the position of the United States on Iraq, and I made it clear that I believe that if this issue is discussed within the NATO deliberations, as it obviously will be, that I would deem it desirable if the outcome of this discussion was reflected in some way in the final documents," Havel said.

The Czech president, in apparent strong support of U.S efforts to make Iraq a focal point of the summit, said it was time NATO's European members realized their geographical proximity to Iraq and took commensurate responsibility. He said the alliance's ability or failure to formulate a common position on Iraq would serve as a litmus test of how well prepared NATO is to meet the challenges it will face in the 21st century. "Let's realize that it is not the United States but the European part of the alliance that directly borders on this country [Iraq], and I believe that this test of its attitude and its capability to reach agreement, and its operative capabilities might, at the same time, be a test of its new identity and of its purpose in the world of today," Havel said.

Havel's support for the United States will undoubtedly be welcomed by Washington, especially at a time when some key alliance leaders, including Germany, have expressed disagreement with U.S. policy on Iraq.

Bush left no doubt that the issue of Iraq will form a key part of discussions at a summit that was originally intended to focus mainly on the issue of enlargement. "There is universal recognition that Saddam Hussein is a threat to world peace. There is clear understanding that he must disarm in the name of peace. We hope he chooses to do so. Tomorrow [at the NATO summit], we'll discuss the issue. We'll consider what happens if he chooses not to disarm, but one thing is certain: He'll be disarmed, one way or the other," Bush said.

On the broader issue of NATO's future course, Bush reiterated that the alliance would have to reform itself in order to combat the threat of terrorism. "It is very important for us to recognize that in order for NATO to be relevant as we go into the future, the military capacities of NATO must be altered to meet the true threats we face. NATO must transition from an organization that was formed to meet the threats from a Warsaw Pact to a military organization structured to meet the threats from global terrorists," Bush said.

Bush emphasized that NATO's original purpose, to counter Russian-led Soviet expansion, is now irrelevant. The enemy, he said, has changed. "The enemy is not Russia. The enemy is global terrorists who hate freedom, and together we can work to defeat that enemy in the name of freedom," Bush said.

Bush also stressed that when speaking about terrorists, the United States had in mind fanatical killers -- whatever their religion -- and was not aiming against Islam as a faith. "The threat from global terrorists is real. These people hate freedom. They are cold-blooded killers who will take innocent life in the name of a hijacked religion," Bush said.

Bush sought to dispel concerns that the United States may seek to de-emphasize its participation in NATO in the future, as it concentrates on the war against terrorism. He said the United States intends to remain an active and integral member of the alliance.

Bush cheered the prospect of NATO enlargement, saying the postcommunist states of Central and Eastern Europe knew the price and value of freedom better than most countries. The U.S. president said this appreciation would not only strengthen the alliance militarily but morally as well. "I welcome the idea of countries joining NATO whose history has taught them the need to protect freedom at all costs, countries whose admission to NATO will invigorate our alliance. The admission of these countries will not only help us militarily achieve peace, but the admission of these countries will affect the soul of this most important alliance," Bush said.

Despite their differences in background and personal style -- Bush joked at one point that no one had ever accused him of being a poet, while Havel is known as a playwright and occasional philosopher -- the two leaders seemed very much at ease. Havel stressed his friendship with George Bush Sr. and said he looked forward to deepening his friendship with his son, the current president.