- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 20, 2002

PRAGUE President Bush said yesterday that he is "not close" to a decision on whether to strike Iraq but predicted that an attack would be supported by NATO, which begins a historic summit here tomorrow.
"We're not close to that decision point yet because we're just beginning the process of allowing Saddam the chance to show the world whether or not he will disarm," Mr. Bush said of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
"If he refuses to disarm, then we will lead a coalition of the willing and disarm him," the president said in an interview with Czech TV. "I hope our NATO friends come with us. I think they will realize it's in the interest of peace and stability."
After giving the interview in the library of the White House, Mr. Bush flew to this ancient city in Eastern Europe for a summit at which seven former communist nations will be invited to join NATO. The alliance was also poised to create a rapid reaction force to fight terrorism as its mission shifted away from the conventional defense of Europe.
"The role of NATO is very different as we go into the 21st century," the president said. "NATO used to be a way to defend Europe from the Warsaw Pact.
"But the Warsaw Pact no longer exists; Russia is not an enemy," he added. "We face new threats, and the new threats are global terror."
Thousands of protesters gathered to march in the streets outside an area of Prague that has been cordoned off for the summit. The city was heavily patrolled by riot police, soldiers and jet fighters.
Security forces detonated an explosive device that was found yesterday at a section of railroad tracks that had been sabotaged, a police spokeswoman said. No one was injured.
"Terrorist attacks can happen wherever and whenever," warned Czech President Vaclav Havel, who will meet with Mr. Bush today. "Our police and security forces have prepared a wide network of measures and have done the maximum so that nothing like that would happen. But 100 percent certainty cannot be found in the world today."
Demonstrators were kept far away from the Prague Hilton, where Mr. Bush planned to give a major speech today outlining his vision of Europe in the age of terrorism. He will also welcome NATO's newest members Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia.
"This is going to be a historic meeting," the president said. "The most important alliance America has is NATO, and the expansion of NATO is something that I think is very important."
The expansion will increase NATO's membership from 19 nations to 26 and take the alliance to the doorstep of Russia. The newest seven members were once behind the Iron Curtain, under Moscow's domination.
The Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were Soviet republics, while Bulgaria and Romania were controlled by the Kremlin through the Warsaw Pact, the Moscow-led alliance set up in 1955 to counter NATO. Slovakia was part of Czechoslovakia, also a Warsaw Pact member. Slovenia was part of Yugoslavia, which was run by communist dictator Marshal Josef Tito.
"Nations that once may have fought us are joining us," marveled White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer. "People in these nations who were once oppressed, they now see their freedom."
Mr. Fleischer called the NATO expansion, which has troubled Russia, "a very powerful curtain raiser under a peaceful 21st century."
Since Europe is no longer threatened by Moscow, NATO is trying to transform its conventional defense forces into unconventional hunters of terrorists. Mr. Bush favors the creation of an anti-terrorism strike force comprising 21,000 NATO troops.
He called this a "military operation that reflects the nature of the wars we'll be fighting. And that's one of the most important discussions we face there in Prague."


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