Amid Protests, Bush Sees Thaw in Europe


The New York Times

June 27, 2004

NEWMARKET-ON-FERGUS, Ireland, June 26 — President Bush declared on Saturday that the "bitter differences" between the United States and Europe over the war in the Iraq were over, and that NATO had a responsibility to help Iraqis with their own security.

But as Mr. Bush spoke at an outdoor joint news conference here with Prime Minister Bertie Ahern of Ireland and Romano Prodi, the president of the European Union, anti-Iraq war protesters blocked at least one of the main roads leading to Dromoland Castle, a 16th-century fortress turned luxury resort where Mr. Bush is staying. The protesters delayed the start of the news conference by half an hour because three buses holding reporters from the United States and Europe were held up on one of the traffic-clogged roads leading to the castle.

Mr. Bush said he hoped NATO would agree at a summit meeting opening Sunday in Istanbul to help with the training of Iraqi security forces. The training commitment, which is near agreement, represents a greatly lowered expectation on the part of the White House since it became clear in recent weeks that NATO was not willing to commit any troops to Iraq.

"NATO has the capability and I believe the responsibility to help the Iraqi people defeat the terrorist threat that is facing their country," Mr. Bush said, with the Irish and American flags flying from the turrets of the castle behind him. Prime Minister Iyad Allawi of Iraq, he noted, had asked NATO for training help and equipment in a recent letter. "I hope NATO responds in a positive way," Mr. Bush said.

[In Brussels on Saturday, the NATO secretary general, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, confirmed that the alliance had reached a deal to train Iraqi armed forces. "NATO heads of state and government are expected to approve this agreement at their summit meeting in Istanbul on June 28," he said in a statement.]

Mr. Bush also acknowledged that he is not especially well-liked in Europe. When asked by a White House reporter how he could explain his unpopularity in opinion polls here and whether Americans should be concerned about it, Mr. Bush replied that he was most concerned about his re-election campaign in the United States.

"I must confess, the first polls I worry about are those that are going to take place in early November this year," he said. "Listen, I care about the image of our country." He added that "as far as my own personal standing goes, my job is to do my job" and that "I'm going to set a vision, I'm going to lead, and we'll just let the chips fall where they may."

Mr. Bush said that Mr. Ahern had questioned him in a meeting on Saturday morning about the Abu Ghraib prison scandal and the American treatment of other prisoners held at Guantánamo Bay, as did President Mary McAleese of Ireland in her own meeting with Mr. Bush.

"I told them both I was sick with what happened inside that prison," Mr. Bush said, referring to Abu Ghraib in Baghdad, where Americans abused Iraqi prisoners. "The actions of those troops did not reflect what we think. And it did harm."

Mr. Bush said he told both Mr. Ahern and Ms. McAleese that the United States would deal with the investigations into the prison abuse scandal "in a transparent way."

Mr. Ahern said "these things happen."

"Of course, we wish they didn't, and it's important then on how they're dealt with."

Mr. Bush was in Ireland for an annual European Union-United States summit meeting, and both he and Mr. Ahern emphasized what they called the progress they had made: signing joint agreements on counterterrorism, counterproliferation, H.I.V. and AIDS and an agreement that enables the satellite navigation systems used in the United States and Europe to be used interchangeably by 2008.

By midafternoon in Ireland, it was unclear how many demonstrators had blocked the road leading to Dromoland Castle. They could not be seen from any of the press buses, which ended up taking such a circuitous route to the castle that a trip that normally takes 15 minutes took more than an hour.

Despite large demonstrations across Ireland on Friday night, when the police estimated that 10,000 had marched against Mr. Bush and the Iraq war in Dublin, protesters interviewed outside Dromoland Castle on Saturday said their numbers had been diminished by government attempts to frighten them away through widely stated warnings that violent confrontations were likely.

In the period leading up to the meeting, newspapers published front-page photos of columns of tanks and armored vehicles, and emphasized the fact that 6,000 soldiers and police officers would be patrolling around Dromoland Castle in the largest military operation ever orchestrated in the Irish Republic.

A helicopter hovered above the main protest march near Dromoland, but no other military presence was visible, except for the maze of 10-foot trenches and earth embankments that soldiers constructed across the fields of neighboring farms in order to dissuade anyone from approaching the castle.

"They've made it very difficult to get here," said Rose Finn, a 33-year-old elementary school teacher who drove to County Clare from Dublin with her husband and baby daughter for the demonstration.

But around 2,000 people did walk three miles from the town of Ennis to a small bridge over the Rine River, where 50 police officers stopped them about one mile from Dromoland. The dozens of rainbow-colored flags and the streaming sunshine created a festive atmosphere. People on bicycles, running children and dogs all wove through the crowd as it moved along a deserted and remote country road towards the castle.

Once they reached the barricades, the protest leaders staged several theatrical pageants, including a mock version of Macbeth, and portrayed a makeshift jail cell that held a protester wearing a Bush mask. Ciaran O'Reilly, wearing dreadlocks and face-paint, said he was protesting in sympathy with American soldiers sent to Iraq against their will, then read a list of American war dead, including their ages and rank. Like most demonstrators, he focused on the perceived role the Irish government played by permitting American military planes to land at the airport nearby for repairs and refueling.

About 1,000 protesters were kept outside the gates at Shannon Airport, where Mr. Bush left on Saturday afternoon for Ankara, Turkey, where he was to stay Saturday night and hold meetings Monday morning. He will then leave for Istanbul and the NATO summit meeting.

Brian Lavery contributed reporting for this article.