Bush wins NATO backing on missile shield

( AP ) - NATO allies gave President Bush strong support Thursday for a missile defense system in Europe and urged Moscow to drop its angry opposition to the program. The unanimous decision strengthened Bush's hand for weekend talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said it was "a breakthrough document on missile defense for the alliance." At Bush's first NATO summit in 2001, "perhaps only two allies gave even lukewarm support for the notion of missile defense," Rice said.

This was Bush's final meeting with members of the 26-nation alliance, and White House officials described it as a day of freewheeling talks in which leaders and their foreign ministers got off script and gathered in crowds to debate the wording of a statement. "It doesn't happen in NATO meetings a lot," said Bush's national security adviser, Stephen Hadley.

He said a group of leaders - "men in suits" - gathered around German Chancellor Angela Merkel to talk about putting former Soviet republics Ukraine and Georgia on a path toward NATO membership, a step she opposes. Moscow heatedly opposes any further eastward expansion of the alliance.

Summit leaders refused to grant the two countries a membership plan now, but said they would look at the issue again in December and they empowered their foreign ministers to decide it. The Balkan nations of Albania and Croatia were invited to join the alliance. Macedonia was turned aside at the insistence of Greece, which says the country's name implies a territorial claim to a northern region of Greece, also called Macedonia.

France helped resolve a sensitive issue for NATO by pledging to send as many as 1,000 more combat troops to Afghanistan's eastern part. That would free up U.S. forces to move into the south, home of fierce fighting with Taliban and al-Qaida forces. Canada had threatened to pull its soldiers from the south unless it received 1,000 reinforcements from another ally.

Some allies, notably Germany, Italy, Turkey and Spain, refuse to send troops to the Afghan front lines because of the unpopularity of the war at home. Hadley said military commanders in Afghanistan are pleading for more forces.

Already the largest contributor to NATO's 47,000 troops in Afghanistan, the United States is dispatching an additional 3,500 Marines and readying plans to send in more in the south next year, Hadley said.

Putin, in the last days of his presidency, arrived Thursday evening and joined the leaders at dinner. Putin planned to meet more formally with NATO chiefs Friday.

With U.S.-Russian relations in a deep chill, Bush and Putin will meet Saturday and Sunday in the Black Sea resort of Sochi in their last talks before the Russian leader steps down in May. Bush's term ends in January.

Rice said the two leaders were expected to produce "a strategic framework" to guide relations between Washington and Moscow under their successors. "Part of that has to be some discussion of missile defense," Rice said, but she stopped short of saying the two leaders would find agreement on the prickly subject.

Russia views the system as designed to weaken its military might and upsetting the balance of power in Europe. Bush argues that the shield is not aimed at Russia but at Mideast countries such as Iran.

In a series of concessions, the White House has offered to let Moscow monitor the sites and promised to delay activation of the shield until Iran or another adversary tests a missile with a range to reach Europe.

Rice said the Russians said those measures were viewed as "useful and important" when she and Defense Secretary Robert Gates were in Moscow last month. "We hope that we can move beyond that to an understanding that we all have an interest in cooperation on missile defense. But we will see."

Aside from the NATO endorsement, the anti-missile program advanced on another front with the Czech Republic's agreement to host a radar system that would track the sky for any threats. The White House has to complete a deal with Poland where 10 interceptor rockets would be based.

The NATO statement said "ballistic missile proliferation poses an increasing threat to allies' forces, territory and populations. Missile defense forms part of a broader response to counter this threat."

The statement called on NATO members to explore ways in which the planned U.S. project can be linked with future missile shields elsewhere. It said leaders should come up with recommendations to be considered at their next meeting in 2009.

Significantly, the document prodded Russia "to take advantage of United States missile defense cooperation proposals" and said NATO was "ready to explore the potential for linking United States, NATO and Russian missile defense systems at an appropriate time."

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