World leaders try to establish united front at annual summit

Monday, June 2, 2003

EVIAN, France -- World leaders clamped a harmonious face on a summit simmering with Iraq war disputes Sunday, striking a united front with pledges of billions of dollars to fight AIDS and hunger in poor nations.

The meeting's most closely watched moment was the welcoming handshake between French President Jacques Chirac and President Bush, whose wartime differences led to angry recriminations on both sides of the Atlantic. They greeted each other with polite smiles, a brief handshake and small talk before walking into a luncheon with other presidents and prime ministers.

Chirac, at a news conference later, praised Bush for getting Congress to pass a $15 billion package to combat AIDS in the developing world.

"Bush took a decision in this area that I would not hesitate to call historic," Chirac said. He said France would triple its AIDS spending, to about $179 million, and European Union officials said the 15 member nations are expected to commit about $1.2 billion in new funds at a summit in Greece later this month.

Police, protesters battle

Largely peaceful demonstrations against the summit deteriorated into battles between riot police and protesters that continued into early this morning. For more than nine hours, police used rubber pellets, tear gas and water cannons against several thousand militants who rampaged through the Swiss city of Geneva, across the lake from the meeting.

The protesters looted gas stations, pharmacies and other shops, leaving downtown Geneva in a state of chaos. Only a handful of stores were left intact -- mainly those which had anti-G-8 or anti-war banners in their windows. Even the bulletproof windows of big banks were smashed.

Inside the summit, there was a concerted effort to get beyond Iraq.

"Everybody talked positively. Nobody talked about the past," said Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien, attending his 10th and final summit. "Everybody was concentrating on creating a mood of solidarity."

Swiss President Pascal Couchepin said that even just one hour into the summit, "the atmosphere was much better. At the end of the day, the atmosphere was quite good."

White House officials suggested Bush was taking a wait-and-see approach about his relationship with Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, another ardent war foe.

It was a different matter, though, with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who also opposed the U.S.-led drive to depose Saddam Hussein but, in Washington's view, was not confrontational about it.

Putin and Bush held a reconciliation meeting earlier Sunday in St. Petersburg, Russia, where they celebrated ratification of a major nuclear arms agreement and proclaimed their close friendship. "Strange as it may sound," Putin said, the United States and Russia have even strengthened ties -- a point that Bush was happy to echo.

"We will show the world that friends can disagree, move beyond disagreement and work in a very constructive and important way to maintain the peace," Bush said.

The annual summit of industrialized nations brought together the leaders of the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Canada and Russia at a spa on the banks of Lake Geneva. They were joined on the opening day by leaders from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Africa and developing countries such as China, India and Mexico -- a move intended in part to answer the criticism of anti-globalization protesters that the G-8 was a rich country's club insensitive to the needs of poorer countries.

Chirac's spokeswoman, Catherine Colonna, said the leaders were not avoiding talking about Iraq but were focusing on the challenge of rebuilding Iraq rather than the fractious debates of the past. " We have not changed our point of view. Neither has the United States," she said.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair said the summit leaders should find areas of agreement.

"The most important thing, particularly after all the differences there have been over Iraq, is that the international community comes together and gives a very strong statement," said Blair, Bush's leading supporter in the war effort.

"It will be the quality of intent that is as important as anything else," Blair said. He expressed hope the summit would take a clear position on the need to stop the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

For all the talk of reconciliation, though, the leaders still clung to long-held views.

Chirac, for one, was asked if his "multipolar vision" of the world, in which a strong European Union would act as a counterweight to U.S. foreign policy, was a goal shared by other summiteers.

"I have no doubt whatsoever that the multipolar vision of the world that I have defended for some time is certainly supported by a large majority of countries throughout the world," he told reporters.

Bush and Putin, at their news conference in St. Petersburg, urged North Korea and Iran to halt development of nuclear weapons. They went out of their way to minimize differences.

"The fundamentals between the United States and Russia turned out to be stronger than the forces and events that tested it," Putin said, Bush nodding in agreement.

Chirac met one-on-one early Sunday with Chinese President Hu Jintao, who was making his first foreign trip since taking office in March. It was also the first time China has attended the annual summit of the world's seven richest industrial countries and Russia. Bush chatted with Hu over a lunch of the Group of Eight leaders and talked with him later about the campaign to halt North Korean's nuclear program.

Chirac told reporters that he hoped that Bush would invite Third World leaders to next year's summit in the United States. But White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said "it's premature to get into the invitation list."

While the United States and European nations agreed to boost their contributions to the fight against AIDS, Japan said it would not be putting up any additional money beyond past commitments, saying it needed to work to battle the deadly SARS epidemic by providing money to China and the health program of the World Bank.

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