German Chancellor Angela Merkel urged President George W. Bush to step up dialogue with Russia over a planned U.S. missile defense system.
The comments, during a U.S.-European Union summit at the White House, followed the chancellor's praise over the weekend of greater U.S. efforts to consult Russia over its plans to install a radar system and interceptors in Eastern Europe as part of the system.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates recently traveled to Moscow, as well as Berlin to discuss Russia's opposition to the plan.
Merkel on Monday proposed that Russia be invited to participate in a common threat analysis to clarify the need for the defense system. She said that talks should take place in the NATO-Russia council.
Though she said she did not expect great progress on the impasse with Russia at the summit, she said she would press her concerns.
"I want to make clear again that things need to be discussed jointly with Russia," she said Monday ahead of talks with Bush.
Comments last week by Russian President Vladimir Putin repeating opposition to the U.S. plan and threatening to pull out of a key post-Cold War treaty that set limits on the deployment of military forces in Europe have cast a shadow on the summit.
But they have also provided an opportunity for European leaders to demonstrate unity with the U.S. at a time when the two sides have made clear they will side step disagreements over unresolved differences on issues like global trade and climate change.
European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, who is leading the summit's European delegation with Merkel, said over the weekend that Russia should not have a veto over the proposed missile defense system and criticized Putin's threat.
The EU as well as the U.S. has been increasingly critical of Russia on human rights and free speech issues, raising concerns that planned elections for Putin's successor in March 2008 may be less than fair and open. But European criticism has been tempered by a perceived need to cultivate Russia as a giant neighbor with essential commercial and political ties.
"For us of course, Russia is also a strategic partner, an important partner," EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner said Monday in Washington. But she said that Putin's comments were not welcomed in Brussels and would be discussed at the summit and at EU-Russia talks next month.
Diplomatic efforts to achieve Middle East peace and to get Iran to suspend its uranium enrichment program are also on the table at the summit.
Barroso responded strongly on Sunday to a suggestion last week by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that the EU needed to be more independent from the U.S.
European leaders and the U.S. have helped push through two sets of United Nations sanctions as part of international efforts to pressure Iran to make nuclear concessions. In response to Ahmadinejad, Barroso said Tehran should know that the concern about its nuclear program was coming from many parts of the world, not just Washington.
Barroso also praised a comment by Bush that he would be open to direct talks with Tehran, following a suggestion from Javier Solana, the EU's foreign and security affairs chief, who met last week with Iran's top nuclear negotiator.
Bush said last week that he would consider talks with Tehran if he thought they would be fruitful, but added he did not believe they would be.
Ferrero-Waldner said she also welcomed Bush's comments and expected that further talks with Iran would be discussed at the summit.
The comments by the European officials ahead of the summit seemed to illustrate the closer ties with Washington that Merkel has sought to foster after years of disputes over the Iraq war and the U.S. treatment of terror suspects.
Relations were boosted when Merkel assumed the EU's rotating presidency in January. As British Prime Minister Tony Blair prepares to leave office, she is considered Bush's best friend among European leaders, and the White House has welcomed her entreaties to repair European ties.
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