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Bush praises German Iraq relief


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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- President Bush has tagged Germany's contribution to the Iraq reconstruction effort as "important" following a meeting with German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder in Washington.

Schroeder faces possible new elections and a potential defeat at the hands of a conservative opponent who, unlike him, supported Bush's invasion of Iraq.

Germany and France were the key opponents of the war when Bush brought the matter to the United Nations in 2003, but, as Schroeder pointed out Tuesday, his country quickly offered debt relief and training missions to aid the Iraqis after Saddam Hussein's ouster.

"There can be no question a stable and democratic Iraq is in the vested interest not just of Germany but also Europe," Schroeder said. "That is why we have committed ourselves to the topic very much from the beginning. We jumped at the idea of debt relief" and began a training program for home grown security in Iraq.

Bush told Schroeder, "I appreciate your focus."

"I think that Germany's contribution in Iraq is important," he said. "The key to success in Iraq is for the Iraqis to be able and capable of defending their democracy against terrorists. The training mission that the chancellor referred to is an important part of helping the Iraqis defend themselves."

Bush said that along with the security process, Iraq has a political process, and "part of the political process is the reconstruction process of which Germany is an important part."

"A free and democratic Iraq in the heart of the Middle East will help the United States and will help Germany because we will have laid a foundation for peace for generations to come," he said.

Bush and Schroeder also traded comments on Iran's recent presidential election, which saw hard-line Tehran mayor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad come from behind to defeat two-time president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani in an election Bush said was flawed.

"It's never free and fair when a group of unelected people get to decide who's on the ballot," he said.

But regarding Iran's nuclear program and Western efforts to stop it, he said the United States will continue working with Britain, France and Germany -- who have been negotiating directly with the Iranians -- "to send a focused concerted unified message" to Iran that "the development of a nuclear weapon is unacceptable."

"And a process that would enable Iran to develop a nuclear weapons is unacceptable," he said.

Schroeder said he "couldn't agree more with this message."

"We are going to continue to be tough and firm on all of that," he said. "The message must stay very crystal clear and it is. And secondly, the new president has emphasized that he wants the talks to continue, so here we are."

Schroeder's future in Germany is in question, however. Earlier, the parliamentary press office in Berlin told CNN that Schroeder had notified the president of the German parliament he intended to ask for a vote of confidence on Friday.

Schroeder's term runs until fall of 2006, but he is seeking new elections after a series of losses for his Social Democratic Party in local elections, which put the conservative opposition in control of parliament's upper house.

Polls indicate elections in September could see him replaced by Christian Democrat Angela Merkel, who favors stronger ties with the United States. A poll released Friday showed Merkel's Christian Democrats leading Schroeder's Social Democrats 44 percent to 27 percent.

If elected, the 50-year-old conservative challenger would be the country's first female chancellor and the first to be elected from the former communist East Germany.

A critic of Schroeder's opposition to the U.S.-led war in Iraq, Merkel has promised a more pro-American policy.

CNN Berlin Bureau Chief Chris Burns and Assignment Desk Editor Stephanie Halasz contributed to this report.

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