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Protests and Pope Greet Bush in Rome

President George Bush's visit in Rome brings him face-to-face with the extremes of European opinion on the Iraq war. From the pope and mass protests to Berlusconi, the U.S. leader hears both sides of the issue.


Protestors stage an unfriendly welcome for President Bush

He's just in town for 36 hours and yet the visit is long enough to turn Rome into a fortress as police saturate the historic center and heavy concentrations of paramilitary forces guard the main thoroughfares and piazzas against protestors. The interior ministry has mobilized some 10,000 security forces and just as many, if not more, people are expected to take to the streets to demonstrate against the U.S. position in Iraq.

President George W. Bush has arrived in Italy at the start of a European tour to honor the sacrifices and triumphs of World War II in Italy and France 60 years ago. But it is the Iraq war which plays most prominently in people's memories today.

Inhospitable welcome

Protestors began gathering on the streets early Friday morning, and rail authorities reported that about 1,000 demonstrators had poured into the city from Milan. Many office and apartment windows in the city center have been draped with the rainbow-colored peace flags as a message to Bush that the Italians do not support his policy -- and that of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi -- in Iraq.

"We're here to tell Bush he's really not welcome," a youth with a megaphone said while the first marchers took to the street in eastern Rome.

As the Bush motorcade rolled through the city on route to a mid-morning meeting with Italian President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, anti-war demonstrators blocked streets and jammed major intersections in an attempt to stop the president's car. On the edge of downtown, an angry group of protestors aimed fireworks at a military school, and in outlying districts, several protestors set fire to boxes and blankets, the Italian news agency Ansa reported.

The official anti-war protest led by the Communists and Greens is expected for later Friday afternoon. The main center-left opposition parties, who also oppose the U.S. leader's visit and the continuing presence of troops in Iraq, said however they would not take part in demonstrations out of respect for the U.S. soldiers who died in the liberation of Rome.

Pontiffical protest

While Bush may be able to roll past the majority of protests, a noon-time meeting with Pope John Paul II brought him face-to-face with one of the sternest critics of the Iraq war. It is the their third meeting, and the first since Bush launched the U.S. invasion in Iraq, despite strong opposition from the Vatican.

The Holy See had recently issued sharp criticisms of the Bush administration's actions leading up to the war and the abuse inflicted by U.S. soldiers on Iraqi prisoners.

On Friday the 84-year-old pontiff said the president's visit to Europe comes "at a moment of great concern for the continuing situation of grave unrest in the Middle East, both in Iraq and the Holy Land." The pope told Bush that the situation in Iraq must "be normalized as quickly as possible with the active participation of the international community and in particular the United Nations, in order to ensure a speedy return of Iraq's sovereignty, in conditions of security for all its people."

The pope also made a veiled reference to recent revelations of abuse of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. troops in Iraq. "In the past few weeks other deplorable events have come to light which have troubled the civil and religious conscience of all, and made more difficult a serene and resolute commitment to shared human values."

In the absence of such a commitment, he said "neither war nor terrorism will ever be overcome."

Bush, who described John Paul II as "a devoted servant of God who has championed the cause of the poor," presented the head of the Roman Catholic Church with the Presidential Medal of Honor, his country's highest civilian award.

Pasta with Silvio

Bush is expected to meet with Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi for a gala dinner on Friday. The Italian leader, who has deployed about 3,000 troops to help rebuild Iraq, is one of the United States' staunchest allies in Europe. After Spain withdrew its soldiers in May, many in Europe looked to Italy to follow suit, but Berlusconi has held his ground despite vocal protests at home.

On Saturday Bush will leave for France, where he will work to rebuild ties with President Jacques Chirac, who along with Germany led the opposition to the war in Iraq. Bush said he hoped Europe and the United States were drawing closer together as Iraqis prepared to assume political control of their country at the end of the month.

"As I head over to honor what happened 60 years ago, I think we're now seeing unity to work toward common good today," he said in an interview with Italian television before leaving Washington.

On Sunday, Bush will head to Normandy to help commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Allies' D-Day landing.

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