CRAWFORD, United States (AFP) – US President George W. Bush and German Chancellor Angela Merkel will continue their talks Saturday, focusing on the Middle East peace process, efforts to stabilize Afghanistan and other international issues.
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was expected to join the two leaders and brief Merkel on her recent trip to the Middle East.
The discussions were also expected to cover the future of Serbia’s breakaway Kosovo province, unrest in Myanmar, and Lebanon’s political crisis.
On Friday, the German chancellor joined an elite group of world leaders invited to the “Prairie Chapel” property for talks that were expected to showcase diplomatic efforts to confront Iran over what the West suspects may be a nuclear weapons program.
“In Texas, when you invite somebody to your home, it’s an expression of warmth and respect. And that’s how I feel about Chancellor Merkel,” said Bush, who added he hoped for “constructive talks as well as a chance to relax and visit.”
Merkel thanked Bush for the invitation after the helicopter ride that took her to the 1,600-acre ranch near this flyspeck town.
“Already, a first glance of the area shows us that this is indeed a wonderful place to be in, a wonderful atmosphere. And we have a number of issues that I think we will have now time to discuss,” she said.
Ahead of the talks, US officials downplayed fissures between the allies on the US hard line toward Iran and Germany’s restrictions on its troops in Afghanistan but also downplayed the likelihood of any breakthroughs.
“Strategically we see eye-to-eye. I think tactically there are some slight differences,” on issues like Iran and Afghanistan, said US National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe.
Bush will take up the new round of US sanctions on the Islamic republic and tell Merkel “this is part of our diplomatic strategy,” he said. “While, yes, we never take any options off the table, this was the next step in trying to make diplomacy work.”
Merkel, who leads Iran’s largest European trading partner, said Germany would embrace “further, tougher sanctions” if ongoing talks fail to convince Iran to heed UN demands to freeze sensitive nuclear work.
Washington has been leading a push for an immediate third wave of UN sanctions against the Islamic Republic which has defied UN demands to suspend uranium enrichment, a possible step towards building nuclear weapons.
On Afghanistan, Johndroe flatly refused to repeat past US jibes at NATO partner Germany for refusing to allow its troops to deploy in the dangerous part of southern Afghanistan to fight the Taliban insurgency.
Bush was also expected to take Merkel on a tour, because “he’s fond of taking visitors around and showing off the ranch,” said the spokesman.
Merkel’s visit capped a busy diplomatic week for Bush, who hosted Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan for tense talks about Iraq and welcomed French President Nicolas Sarkozy to the White House for a charm campaign.
Ties between the United States and Germany notably soured under Merkel’s predecessor Gerhard Schroeder, who steadfastly opposed the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, backing the stand taken by then French president Jacques Chirac.
But Bush is known to have a soft spot for Merkel, who took office in November 2005, and even relished a down-home barbecue of wild boar with her in her electoral district on July 2006.