Bush Not Angry at Reluctant NATO Allies

The Associated Press
Wednesday, November 7, 2007; 6:02 PM

WASHINGTON -- President Bush said Wednesday he has no problem with some NATO allies refusing to contribute forces to fight alongside the United States and others in Afghanistan's dangerous south.

Bush's statement contradicted repeated and high-profile criticism by officials within his own administration and other countries. It came in an interview previewing this weekend's visit to the president's Texas ranch by Germany Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Germany is among the NATO countries, also including France, Italy and Spain, that have restricted their troops to relatively peaceful areas in Afghanistan's north. The only NATO troops operating in the more violent front-line provinces, where most of the fighting against the Taliban is taking place, are from the United States, Canada, the Netherlands and Britain. The issue has caused a rift within NATO and caused officials from the participating countries to try to sway the restricted countries to change course.

Just last month, Defense Secretary Robert Gates told a conference of European army leaders, held in Heidelberg, Germany, that some countries' restrictions on how and where their troops can operate have "done real harm" to the Afghan mission.

"In Afghanistan, a handful of allies are paying the price and bearing the burdens," Gates said. "The failure to meet commitments puts the Afghan mission _ and with it, the credibility of NATO _ at real risk."

Bush took the opposite position when asked about the issue in an interview with German reporters from RTL and n-tv. He said he wouldn't ask Merkel to change her country's position in a way that she is not "comfortable with."

"I understand," he said. "Everybody's parliaments or legislative bodies reacts to the challenges differently. I'm just so pleased that Germany is contributing forces there to help this Afghan democracy. These contributions are meaningful and some countries are able to take on different assignments."

Merkel arrives at Bush's Crawford, Texas, ranch on Friday for a two-day visit. Since taking office in 2005, succeeding Gerhard Schroeder, she has become one of the president's closest European colleagues.

Bush also said he was "absolutely serious" when he said recently that a nuclear-armed Iran could lead to "World War III."

That comment has been perceived as part of a larger campaign of escalating rhetoric against Iran by the Bush administration. Bush labeled Tehran's Quds military force as a terrorist group and asked Congress to approve money for the development of a bomb that can destroy hardened concrete bunkers and tunnels deep underground.

Also, Vice President Dick Cheney said the U.S. and other nations are "prepared to impose serious consequences" if Iran continues on its current course and said "we will not allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon."

The administration has denied increasing speculation that all of this amounts to a march toward war with Iran.

Bush defended the World War III comment.

"The reason I said that is because this is a country that has defied the IAEA" _ the International Atomic Energy Agency _ "in other words, didn't disclose all their program _ have said they want to destroy Israel," he said. "If you want to see World War III, you know, a way to do that is to attack Israel with a nuclear weapon."

He also tried to tamp down the war talk.

"I've committed our troops into harm's way twice, and it's not a pleasant experience because I understand the consequences firsthand," Bush said. "And so I owe it to the American people to say that I've tried to solve this problem diplomatically. And that's exactly what I intend to do. And I believe we can do it, so long as the world works in concert."

© 2007 The Associated Press