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Obama comfortable as head of nuclear summit before world leaders

President Obama kicked off the 47-country Nuclear Security Summit Tuesday, declaring the risk of nuclear attack, not by an enemy nation, but from terrorists, was on the rise despite the end of the Cold War.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whom administration officials describe as high on the list of the European leaders Obama most admires, received a kiss on each cheek at the final bilateral meeting.

Obama bowed formally to Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama. He used both hands to shake the hands of some leaders and joked with others.

David Miliband, Britain's foreign secretary, said such personal diplomacy is "quite important" at summits, especially one about an issue he said is "often seen as administrative."

"When Obama stands up and says 'My friend Dmitry Medvedev' or 'My friend Nicolas Sarkozy,' he's right, and that's important," Miliband said. "He's made a number of friends of world leaders, and I think that's a testament to why so many arrived to take part in this."

Several European diplomats said the large number of attendees reflects Obama's popularity abroad -- in some places, it exceeds his domestic approval rating -- and the fact that an appearance at a high-profile conference can often improve the stature of foreign leaders struggling with poor economies and political unpopularity at home.

But many of those leaders cared far less than Obama does about securing the military sites, research reactors and universities where nuclear materials are stored. His challenge was to change that, and he said at a news conference that he succeeded.

"Coming into this summit, there were a range of views on this danger," Obama said. "But at our dinner last night, and throughout the day, we developed a shared understanding of the risk."

On the margins of the summit, Obama met with the leaders of Canada, Jordan, Malaysia, South Africa and Turkey, among other regional powers. In all, he held at least 15 bilateral meetings, many focused on rallying support for fresh sanctions against Iran.

Among Obama's longest was with Chinese President Hu Jintao, a 90-minute session Monday that included a discussion about how to proceed with new penalties. China, a veto-holding member of the U.N. Security Council, has declined for months to endorse such measures against Iran, one of its major oil suppliers.

Afterward, the Americans asserted that China had taken a step toward endorsing stricter sanctions and reiterated the president's assessment that a new set would be in place this spring. They noted that Hu used the word "sanctions" -- a rarity for a Chinese leader -- and that Chinese officials had refrained from publicly voicing opposition to such measures.

Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai, speaking to reporters in Washington on Tuesday night, said that while China prefers a diplomatic solution, it is "open to ideas" on how to deal with Iran.

Obama and Hu often take a long time to conclude a meeting, each vying for the last word. The Monday session was no different, a Chinese official said, with the two men ending and then beginning the conversation again nearly a dozen times before it was over.

Obama did not say Tuesday how soon he expects progress on Iran, saying only that China has sent representatives to the United Nations to work on a sanctions resolution.

At the news conference, Obama called the day "enormously productive" and the summit itself "historic."

"So I'm going to keep on at it," Obama said. "But I think on all these issues -- nuclear disarmament, nuclear proliferation, Middle East peace -- progress is going to be measured not in days, not in weeks. It's going to take time. And progress will be halting."

Staff writer John Pomfret contributed to this report.

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