San Diego Union Tribune

June 26, 2004

Unusually fierce protests greet Bush in Ireland


ENNIS, Ireland Amid growing confidence that NATO soon will put its military muscle behind Iraq's fledgling government, President Bush arrived in Ireland yesterday to the sounds of protests and the sight of tanks.

En route to Ireland, senior U.S. officials said they expect NATO, at a two-day summit beginning Monday in Turkey, to agree to help train and equip Iraqi forces after the scheduled transfer of sovereignty next week. Bush and Iraq's interim prime minister, Iyad Allawi, have said they would welcome such a move by NATO.

Bush's trip to Ireland and Turkey begins a burst of summitry made more critical by rising European anger over U.S. policies and continued outbursts of violence in Iraq that threaten to undermine the new government even before it assumes power Wednesday.

Long a source of photo-ops for U.S. presidents in campaign years, Ireland was anything but that for Bush, who was greeted yesterday by Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern.

Thousands of demonstrators turned out in the nearby town of Shannon, in Dublin, and elsewhere around the country to protest the president's visit and the increasingly bloody war in Iraq. Meanwhile, the U.S. treatment of prisoners there and at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, drew fresh criticism.

Irish tanks equipped with 76mm cannons rolled into positions near Shannon airport and around the 15th-century castle where the president was staying and will meet with Irish leaders and his counterparts in the 25-nation European Union today.

Security is expected to be even tighter when the president goes to Turkey later in the day for the NATO summit. There, he will lobby allied leaders to provide more support to the new Iraqi government.

The Iraqi government has asked for help in training its army and security force. This, said a senior administration official on Air Force One, is "a request that NATO needs to be responsive to."

The White House has grown increasingly confident that NATO will agree to provide such assistance, senior officials said.

With terrorist bombings in Turkey on Thursday, the White House is braced for a tense situation there.

But the intensity of the Irish protests was a surprise.

In sharp contrast to the visits to Ireland of Presidents Clinton and Reagan, Bush is being kept far from the public. He saw few protesters upon his arrival in Ireland's County Clare, a verdant region of rolling hills and sweeping seaside vistas. Some 4,000 police and 2,000 soldiers roughly a third of the entire Irish security forces were called out to help protect him.

Polls here show Bush is distinctly unpopular, a sentiment that was evident on O'Connell Street running through the heart of Ennis.

"A lot of it is that we all see the atrocities in the prisons," said taxi driver Tom Murrihy, 62, who lives in nearby West Seafield Quilty. "We understand 9/11 and we felt terrible for America. But this war is a bit of an overreaction, and people here do not like it."

Bush's unpopularity and the anti-Americanism across the continent have begun to trouble many European leaders who fear fraying trans-Atlantic ties could hamper cooperation on areas other than Iraq.

"We now recognize in Europe there is no point on this continuing focus on this persistent argument about the intervention in Iraq," said Chris Patten, the European Union's minister for foreign affairs. "We have a shared interest in America and in Europe and in the rest of the democratic world in trying to ensure that the new Iraq created at the beginning of next month is able to be open, plural, democratic and pray God stable as well, despite the present exceptionally difficult security situation."

Patten said European leaders want to use the EU and NATO summits to move beyond the current dispute. "All of us are worried that violence could lead to Iraq flying apart in the next few months," he said.

Ahern, who is hosting this summit because he is the current EU president, has promised supporters that he will raise with Bush the issue of abuse at U.S.-run prisons in Iraq and at Guantanamo Bay. Ahern has resisted pressure to withdraw permission for U.S. troop planes to stop at Shannon airport for refueling.

Patten said the issue is important in Europe. "Where there is a legitimate worry in Europe is whether or not the administration and others are as committed as we to the application of the Geneva Conventions in all instances," he said.

Before flying here, Bush granted what turned out to be a contentious interview to Irish RTE TV.

Asked whether he was bothered by the Irish anger over Abu Ghraib, the president said, "I hope the Irish people understand the great values of our country. And if they think that a few soldiers represent the entirety of America, they don't really understand America then."

Pressed on the issues of war and abuse of Iraqi detainees, Bush repeatedly objected to the questioning by veteran U.S.-based correspondent Carol Coleman, saying at one point, "Let me finish. Let me finish. May I finish?"

Cox News Service contributed to this report.