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Putin chance to play czar
- Meet to clear post-war air

St Petersburg, May 30 (Reuters): World leaders gathered in St Petersburg today determined the party spirit around the 300th anniversary of Russia’s old czarist capital should help clear the air after the Iraq war.

Key players in the bitter debate over the US-led invasion of Iraq, including leaders of France, Germany and Britain, were arriving for three days of sumptuous celebrations to mark the tercentenary of President Vladimir’s Putin's home town.

US President George W. Bush will arrive tomorrow.

Putin, with a chance to play czar as he showcased the splendour of a city restored to some elegance by $1.5 billion of renovation, was in effusive mood as he welcomed guests.

“We have striven to do everything so that you, in this circle of friends, will feel at home in the full sense of the word,” he told heads of former Soviet states, the first of the more than 40 world leaders to arrive for the celebrations.

Both Bush and his closest ally in the Iraq war, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, signalled they wanted the meeting to be the start of a rapprochement after the divisions over Iraq. Before leaving for a number of stops in Europe, Bush said he foresaw no confrontation with France and other countries, like Russia, that had opposed the war, though he said frustration persisted in the US over French conduct.

“It’s an opportunity to talk with some who agreed with us on Iraq and some who didn't,” Bush said of a tour that will also take in next week's Group of Eight summit in France.

Blair, speaking in Poland, urged Europe to heal the rift with the US and work together to make the world safe from terrorism and weapons of mass destruction.

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