Chirac calls situation 'precarious', but plays down divisions with Bush

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George Bush and his French counterpart, Jacques Chirac, sought to bury their bitter differences on Iraq yesterday as the US President entered the most testing phase of his campaign to heal divisions with Europe.

George Bush and his French counterpart, Jacques Chirac, sought to bury their bitter differences on Iraq yesterday as the US President entered the most testing phase of his campaign to heal divisions with Europe.

Although Mr Chirac could not resist saying that the situation in Iraq remained "extremely precarious" and again questioned America's justification for the war, he played down friction with Washington, and said his talks with Mr Bush in Paris yesterday were "sincere" and "trusting".

As the two prepared to head for Normandy for today's commemoration of D-Day, they highlighted areas of agreement. "Free nations working together can overcome danger," said Mr Bush, and Mr Chirac said he hoped a UN Security Council resolution on Iraq could be agreed "within days".

The relatively cordial atmosphere was a relief to Mr Bush. Despite a fulsome reception in Rome from the Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, he was also greeted by huge anti-war demonstrations and a public lecture on Iraq from the Pope.

But the salons of the Vatican City, Rome and Paris - even the memory-laden beaches of Normandy - are only a prelude to the real talking to try and repair relations between the US and Europe: this week's G8 summit at the Sea Island resort in Georgia, followed at the end of June by the twice yearly EU-US summit and the Nato heads of government meeting in Turkey.

Both sides want to improve the atmosphere; even viscerally anti-Bush Europeans, bent on denying any success that might help his re-election, realise that failure in Iraq would be a disaster for everyone.

For the US President, five months away from an election that he might well lose, the stakes are even higher. Normandy, Sea Island and the EU and Nato summits all offer a precious opportunity for Mr Bush to mend fences with the war's principal opponents - President Chirac, Vladimir Putin of Russia and Germany's Chancellor, Gerhard Schröder. But a little fence mending is in order with his domestic audience, too.

Americans profess not to care about international opinion. But the outcry against US Iraq policy and mounting anti-Americanism around the world, fuelled by the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal, are starting to make even some of Mr Bush's voters back home queasy. Their misgivings are one reason why John Kerry is now level pegging or better in the polls.

Thus the results of this month of confabulations are fairly predictable. The British and the Americans are making enough concessions on the scope of the sovereignty of the new interim government in Baghdad that, somewhere along the line, the Security Council will approve a new UN resolution endorsing the post-30 June arrangements for Iraq. With or without a UN deal, however, Mr Bush will not secure any new deployment of foreign troops to Iraq to take the weight off the overstretched American military.

The G8 closing communiqué will contain nods to his efforts to tighten the existing nuclear anti-proliferation curbs, and Palestinians and Israelis will be exhorted to make positive steps to end their conflict. The watered-down US proposals to bring free markets and democracy to the Middle East region will be adopted.

But it will amount to little. A public row is unthinkable at such choreographed summits - nor is it in anyone's interest to have one. "Everyone will behave," says Charles Kupchan of the Council for Foreign Affairs here. "The photo ops will indicate solidarity, but I don't expect anything concrete. The leaders will focus on those areas where there is agreement, that is on the Broader Middle East Initiative."

But that project, aimed at fostering free markets and democracy in the region, is a shadow of its previous self.

Worst of all, thanks to the continuing mess in Iraq and the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, the credibility of the US is in tatters - and so is that of America's nostrums for the Middle East, however well intentioned.

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