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Bush: Join 'coalition of willing'

U.S. President George W. Bush and Czech President Vaclav Havel face reporters at Prague Castle
U.S. President George W. Bush and Czech President Vaclav Havel face reporters at Prague Castle

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PRAGUE, Czech Republic (CNN) -- George W. Bush has said the United States will lead a "coalition of the willing" if the Iraqi president chooses not to give up his weapons of mass destruction.

The U.S. president spoke on Wednesday during a joint news conference with Czech President Vaclav Havel just ahead of a NATO summit in Prague that will bring seven former Eastern bloc nations into the alliance.

"It's very important for our [NATO] nations as well as all free nations to work collectively to see to it that Saddam Hussein disarms," Bush said.

"However, should he choose not to disarm, the United States will lead a coalition of the willing to disarm him and at that point in time, all our nations ... will be able choose whether or not they want to participate."

According to Bush, if the will of the world is strong, the disarmament of Iraq can be achieved peacefully, but was quick to add that Saddam must understand the true consequences of not giving up his weapons programs.

"The United Nations has said 16 different times he must disarm and 16 times he said 'oh of course I will' but never did," Bush said. "So the game's over with, we're through with that and now he's going disarm one way or the other."

Bush said that friends of the U.S. could choose whether they wanted to participate in any military action against Iraq should Saddam refuse to surrender his weapons programmes.

He said it was up to the Czech Republic, Germany or Britain, for example, whether they wanted to take part in any action to force Saddam to disarm.

"The point is, there will be plenty of discussion with our friends," Bush said.

Havel said he preferred that Saddam peacefully surrender his weapons of mass destruction. "If, however, the need to use force were to arise, I believe NATO should give honest and speedy consideration to its engagement as an alliance," the Czech president said.

Bush met Havel and Czech Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla in the splendour of Prague Castle and Hrzansky Palace. The Czech Republic has specialists in countering biological and chemical attacks, as are feared in any confrontation with Saddam's military.

Bush said the U.S. could draw on such "effective military capacity" in a changing NATO.

NATO could expect a "positive and active presence" from the U.S., but NATO also had to recognise the need to transform itself from an organisation formed to meet the threat from the Warsaw Pact to one that had to deal with global terrorists.

"The enemy is not Russia, the enemy is global terrorists who hate freedom," Bush added.

The leaders of NATO and its partner countries will meet on Thursday and Friday to deliberate on the alliance's future. The 19-member alliance was expected to issue invitations to Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia.

Bush is a firm proponent of expanding the alliance, in part because many of the new members have been strong allies in the war on terrorism and voiced a willingness to offer bases and overflight rights if there is a U.S.-led military confrontation with Iraq.

The president is counting on a strong NATO statement backing his position that Iraq must disarm or face military action, but there is a sense that he does not view NATO as a full player in his military planning.

For example, NATO had little role in the war in Afghanistan, although it was quick to offer help after the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States.

Iraq poses a number of challenges for the alliance formed to contain the Soviet Union. The alliance now includes several former Soviet client states as well as a partnership with Russia, and some see war with Iraq as a perfect test of whether an alliance formed to win the Cold War can adapt to changing times.

Germany is a key player in NATO, but Iraq is a sore spot in U.S.-German relations because Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder has been adamant that Germany would not take part in any military showdown with Iraq.

Bush has one-on-one meetings with several European leaders, but not with the German leader. U.S. officials, however, said they expect the two men would cross paths during the NATO meetings.

While still angry at the anti-war tone of the chancellor's re-election campaign, U.S. officials say they understand the need for a solid working relationship with Germany.

CNN White House Correspondent John King contributed to this report.

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