- The Washington Times - Monday, December 15, 2003

President Bush delivered a message to France and Germany yesterday as his personal envoy arrived in Europe to negotiate forgiveness of at least some of Iraq’s debt: Prime reconstruction contracts in that war-torn country are not a topic of negotiation.

“The idea of spending taxpayers’ money on contracts to firms that did not participate in the initial thrust is just something I wasn’t going to do,” Mr. Bush said at a press conference yesterday. “And you know what? The American taxpayers understand that. They understand that completely.

“That’s not to say that there’s not other ways to participate,” Mr. Bush said, “and we look forward to including them in the process.”

Mr. Bush said he is still “reaching out” to France, Russia and Germany, who opposed the war in Iraq, and “we want them to participate” in building a democratic Iraq. But he pointed out that 63 countries form the coalition that toppled Saddam Hussein, and rejected the notion that much of Europe was against the war.

“You’re talking about one or two countries,” Mr. Bush said. “What you’re talking about is France and Germany, truth be known.”

Former Secretary of State and Bush family friend James A. Baker III meets with French President Jacques Chirac today, the first of five countries he will visit this week asking for help in restructuring the $120 billion in debt run up by Saddam’s regime.

He will also visit Germany, Russia, Italy and Britain.

Mr. Baker’s trip has been complicated by a memo that outlined the Bush policy of limiting primary-reconstruction contracts to companies based in countries that supported the war to liberate Iraq.

Leaders in France, Germany and Russia reacted angrily last week upon hearing the news, but France and Russia have since appeared to soften, signaling yesterday they were willing to forgive some of Iraq’s debt.

French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin emerged yesterday from a meeting with a delegation from the interim Iraqi Governing Council and said a debt-relief deal could be worked out next year.

“France [can] envisage debt cancelations that are appropriate and compatible with Iraq’s financing capability,” Mr. de Villepin said.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Yury Fedotov also suggested a deal was in the offing.

“I want to stress again that the [debt relief] mechanisms are very flexible and provide for measures to restructure and ease the obligations of debtor countries,” Mr. Fedotov said.

Mr. Bush yesterday denied that the war in Iraq has caused a rift between the United States and its traditional European allies, pointing out that Germany has committed troops to the fight against terrorists in Afghanistan.

The main point of contention, he said, is that the attacks of September 11, 2001, changed the way he saw the world, but not the way France and Germany do.

“I obviously felt like September the 11th changed the equation to the point where we needed to deal with emerging threats and deal with them in a way that would make America more secure,” Mr. Bush said. “They didn’t see that. They didn’t agree with that point of view.”

Mr. Bush said that a “secure and free Iraq” is in the interests “of all nations,” and he will gladly “accept the willingness of nations to put troops on the ground” in Iraq.

But he reiterated his doctrine of taking action where he sees fit, with or without the consensus of all the European powers.

“I have a duty to protect this country,” Mr. Bush said. “And I will continue to protect the country so long as I’m the president of the United States.”

• This story is based in part on wire service reports.

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