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Bush heads to NATO summit

President Bush heads to a NATO summit in Prague on Tuesday with the burden of European disagreement over Iraq at least temporarily lifted and the freedom to focus on U.S. priorities for expanding and refashioning the aging alliance.

Tentative plans for Bush to deliver a speech on the need to get tough with Saddam Hussein were scrapped following the recent unanimous United Nations vote for new weapons inspections.

The resolution calls for uncompromising new inspections and destruction of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction programs, and pledges to consider "serious consequences," including military action, if Baghdad does not cooperate.

Bush's major address during the five-day trip, delivered to a student forum Wednesday, will focus on "his vision of a Europe whole, free and at peace," White House national security adviser Condoleezza Rice said Friday.

"I expect that we will hear from NATO partners what they are prepared to do and what they can do" in the event of military action against Iraq, Rice said. "But that's not the purpose of this summit."

The two-day Prague meeting will "celebrate an historic moment for NATO, which is the expansion of NATO into territories that I think nobody ever thought NATO would expand into," she said. Seven countries are expected to be approved for membership at the summit, two of which _ Lithuania and Romania _ Bush will visit before returning to Washington next weekend.

Other nations expecting to receive invitations are Latvia, Estonia, Slovenia, Slovakia and Bulgaria. The expansion will be NATO's second, following admission in 1999 of Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic; formal induction requires individual ratification in each of the current 19 member states and will take about two years.

In addition to approving the expansion, the administration is looking for NATO leaders to endorse establishment of a joint 20,000-troop rapid deployment force for combat operations around the world proposed earlier this year by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and agreement on new tasks and a command structure to make the alliance better able to respond to the global terrorist threat.

But while it will not have a formal, centralized role in the proceedings, Iraq will be hovering over the NATO deliberations. "Iraq is typical of the most important example of the kind of threat that NATO will face in the future," Rice said. "So it would be odd if this were not an issue at the summit."

Bush will meet with French President Jacques Chirac, who led U.N. Security Council opposition to an initial U.S.-proposed Iraq resolution that was modified to remove what France and others considered automatic triggers the United States might use to launch an invasion without specific council authorization.

He will also meet with Turkish President Ahmet Necet Sezer. Turkish assistance is considered vital to any U.S. military action in Iraq, and Bush wants to reach out to Turkey's newly-elected Islamic-based government.

Bush will not meet separately with German President Gerhard Schroeder, who has been the NATO leader most adamantly opposed to a military attack. Schroeder's pledge that Germany would not participate in any assault on Iraq, with or without U.N. backing, put relations with Washington in a deep freeze from which they have only partially thawed.

As for German participation in any upcoming Iraq campaign, Rice said "I would note that this is a U.N. Security Council resolution that has the backing of everybody in the world, including Syria. And I'm quite certain that the members of NATO, all of them, are supportive of trying to work to make sure that the U.N. Security Council resolution is carried out . . . But Germany will have to decide what role it can and cannot play to endorse U.N. Security Council resolutions if that's necessary."

On Friday, Bush will travel to St. Petersburg for a four-hour visit with Russian President Vladmir Putin. Russia has major investments in Iraq and is looking for repayment of an Iraqi debt in the billions of dollars. Long Baghdad's most powerful defender on the Security Council, it was among the last holdouts before the resolution was adopted Nov. 8.

Bush expects to discuss the situation in Chechnya, officials said, using whatever leverage the United States has gained by supporting Putin's tough stand against Chechen terrorists to push for addressing Chechen national aspirations on a political level.