| A demonstrator sits on a giant George Bush mask in the French alpine resort of Evian on Saturday. (Reuters)
St Petersburg, May 31 (Reuters): A conciliatory US President George W. Bush flew into Russia today to face world leaders who opposed him over Iraq, with a historic gala providing a glamorous setting for repairing damaged ties.
Lavish festivities to mark the 300th anniversary of St Petersburg, President Vladimir Putin’s hometown, brought together the key players in the bitter debate leading up to the Iraq war, including the leaders of France, Germany and Britain.
Speaking in Poland on the first stop of a week-long post-war trip to Europe and West Asia, Bush ruled out confrontation and took a conciliatory tack, saying the US was committed to a strong partnership with Europe against terrorism.
“This is no time to stir up divisions in a great alliance,” he said in Krakow. He used a visit to the nearby Auschwitz death camp to spell out his case for pre-emptive strikes on “evil”.
“The US is committed to a strong Atlantic alliance to ensure our security, to advance human freedom and to keep peace in the world,” he said, thanking Poles for backing on Iraq that contrasted with fierce French and German criticism.
The presence of the more than 40 leaders, following many months of international tension, turned the $1.5 billion party into an occasion for intense global diplomacy. Bush, Putin and other leaders of the Group of Eight industrialised powers also go on to a G8 summit in the French town of Evian on Sunday.
Despite Bush’s calming words, his national security adviser Condoleezza Rice did not mince her words in an interview with a French newspaper, telling Le Monde there had been times Paris seemed to view Americans as more dangerous than Saddam Hussein.
And the Evian summit still promises to be a tense gathering, with the US leader challenging Europe to tear down trade barriers and open up to genetically modified crops.
Before he arrived in St Petersburg, EU allies breezed through a separate summit with Putin, who seeks re-election next March, treading delicately on sensitive issues.
Many of the 40 or so leaders, including from the 15 EU states and 10 who join the bloc next year, viewed a display of czarist-era sea-going vessels on the Neva river — most leaders donning overcoats against a blustery Baltic wind and showers.
Bush did not attend the riverside spectacular, but was scheduled to have dinner at Czar Peter the Great’s 18th-century Peterhof palace, modelled on Versailles, with other dignitaries.
His late arrival meant he would have time only for the briefest encounter with French President Jacques Chirac, his bete noire in the Iraqi crisis, who will be his host at Evian.
Tomorrow, he will meet Putin for a separate summit when the future of post-war Iraq and the growing issue of Russia’s nuclear cooperation with Iran were sure to be discussed.
A senior US official accompanying Bush said Russia shared its concerns about Iran’s nuclear programme but that Washington would press Moscow on the issue during the visit.
Washington has sharply criticised Russian involvement in Iran’s plans to build a nuclear power plant, which the Americans say is a cover for a nuclear weapons programme.
“We have seen some good developments in Russian thinking. We hope this translates into good developments in Russian action,” the official said. Bush, who meets the Israeli and Palestinian Prime Ministers next week, said he also saw a “hopeful sign” in a new Palestinian rejection of violence.