Bush, Chirac Have Ice-Breaking Phone Call
By Steve Holland
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Bush and French President Jacques Chirac, bitterly divided over the U.N. debate about use of force against Iraq, broke the ice on Tuesday in a phone call the White House called "businesslike."
Bush and Chirac spoke for 20 minutes in a conversation initiated by the French, the first time they had spoken in two months. The attempt at fence-mending coincided with Washington all but declaring victory in its 26-day war in Iraq that was strongly opposed by France.
Chirac's pledge to veto any U.N. Security Council resolution that could be seen as authorizing military force against Iraq forced Bush last month to end diplomatic efforts for U.N. unity and go to war, with the United States and Britain playing the lead military roles.
Bush chafed at the French position and U.S. officials made clear there would be repercussions in U.S. relations with France, although not on the scale of the U.S. chill with Germany over Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's anti-war stance.
Strains also remain with Russia, which opposed the war.
It did not appear that Bush was ready to let bygones be bygones, although he does still intend to attend an Evian, France, summit of the world's seven largest industrial democracies plus Russia in June.
"We have differences. We still have some of those differences. But that won't stop the president from working in a businesslike and professional way with an ally like France," said a White House spokesman.
In Paris, Chirac spokeswoman Catherine Colonna described the conversation as "positive."
FRANCE WANTS U.N. ROLE
She said Chirac told Bush he was glad Saddam Hussein (news - web sites)'s government had fallen and that the war had been brief, while sticking to his initial view opposing military force.
"France believes the international community must do all it can so that things work in its favor and involve the United Nations as soon as possible," she said, reiterating the Chirac argument for a central U.N. role in the future of Iraq.
Bush has rejected the French view and said the United Nations will have a "vital role" to play in Iraq but limited mostly to providing humanitarian assistance. Washington is pushing ahead with a series of meetings with Iraqi groups to set up an interim administration.
Colonna said Chirac had informed Bush of France's desire to "act pragmatically and case by case," especially on issues such as Iraqi disarmament, handling of sanctions, interim government, oil resources, administration and reconstruction.
The White House expressed puzzlement at the what Chirac meant by a "pragmatic" role for France.
"It was an interesting choice of words. I don't know exactly, literally, what to make of it. I think that's something that France can explain. I think that they may be seeking to find what role they may be able to play," Fleischer said.
The two leaders did agree that Syria should not be harboring Iraqi leaders who fled the war, Fleischer said.
Colonna said Chirac had also asked Bush about U.S. intentions regarding Syria following several days of comments by top U.S. officials that intensified media speculation of possible action against Damascus.
Chirac told Bush he did not wish to see anything that would add to tension in the region. Bush is close to releasing a Middle East peace plan for the creation of a Palestinian state, a subject that came up in the phone call.
Bush made clear he felt he made the right decision to go to war on Iraq in a White House Rose Garden speech and said that "our victory in Iraq is certain, but it is not complete."
"A month ago -- one month ago -- that country was a prison to its people, a haven for terrorists, an arsenal of weapons that endangered the world. Today, the world is safer. The terrorists have lost an ally. The Iraqi people are regaining control of their own destiny. These are good days in the history of freedom," Bush said.