- The Washington Times - Friday, February 22, 2008

MONROVIA, Liberia — President Bush completed his Africa tour yesterday by meeting with one of his strongest allies on the continent and thanking the African people for their wildly enthusiastic reception of him over the past week.

“Though we are 4,500 miles from home, I feel at home here,” Mr. Bush said in remarks under a hot sun on a parade grounds in front of more than 600 Liberian soldiers.

Mr. Bush arrived in Liberia early yesterday morning and was greeted, as he was at every stop on this five-country trip, by thousands of onlookers along the motorcade route — many of them waving U.S. flags and cheering.

“I do want to thank the people of Liberia for the warm welcome that we have received. I loved all the smiles and enthusiasm along the route,” Mr. Bush said.

Standing next to Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf in the lobby of government offices, Mr. Bush told the Liberian people that the U.S. wants “to help you recover from a terrible period.” Liberia suffered through two civil wars that lasted until 2003. At that time, Mr. Bush sent about 1,500 U.S. Marines to help stabilize the country that was founded by freed slaves who left the U.S. in 1820.

“We want you to build lives of hope and peace. And under your leadership, that’s exactly what’s happening,” Mr. Bush said to Ms. Johnson-Sirleaf, who is 69.

Mr. Bush and the Liberian leader, who was elected in 2005 and is the first woman to govern an African nation, share a warm relationship.

Mr. Bush “feels really close” to Ms. Johnson-Sirleaf, said White House press secretary Dana Perino. In the latest announcement of aid to an African nation, Mr. Bush announced that the U.S. will provide 1 million textbooks to Liberian students, along with Liberian-made desks and chairs for 10,000 students.

Liberia is not developed enough to qualify for aid under the Millennium Challenge Account, which gives developing countries money for important infrastructure projects on the condition that they root out corruption in their government.

Ms. Johnson-Sirleaf, who was elected in the fall of 2006, vowed that she would lead Liberia back to legitimacy.

“I saw with the strongest conviction that Liberia is on its way to economic recovery,” she said.

Mr. Bush took this trip in large part to highlight what he once called more than a “mission of mercy” to the continent. His administration has provided unprecedented levels of aid to fight disease, poverty and corruption.

In particular, the U.S. has given $15 billion in the past five years to treat and prevent HIV/AIDS, and $1.2 billion to fight malaria. Mr. Bush is asking Congress to allocate $30 billion over the next five years for AIDS.

Mr. Bush and first lady Laura Bush began their trip last weekend in Benin, and moved on to Tanzania, Rwanda, Ghana and Liberia.

Mr. Bush, who has been battered by low approval ratings back home for years, was greeted as a hero on this trip.

Stephen Morrison, co-director of the Africa project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said that Mr. Bush “pretty much stuck to the script” on the trip. “I don’t think that there were any big surprises at all.”

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