U.S. President George W. Bush said that Bulgaria was a trusted U.S. ally in Iraq and Afghanistan that was "helping others realize the blessings of liberty" Monday, wrapping his European tour with stop if the Former-Soviet country.
Although Bush's welcome was more muted than the adulation he received a day earlier in Albania, thousands of Bulgarians - many waving tiny American flags - packed a square in downtown Sofia to greet the U.S. leader.
"Thank you for being an ally in helping others realize the blessings of liberty," Bush said after meeting with President Georgi Parvanov, who called Bush's visit "proof that the relations between our two countries could not be better."
Bush stressed the strength of U.S. ties with Bulgaria, which shed communism in 1989 and became a member of NATO in 2004 and the EU in January.
After greeting Bulgarian soldiers who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, Bush reached out to shake hands in the crowd at Nevsky Square as the locals beamed and cheered. Bulgaria's parliament recently extended the Iraq mission until March 2008, and last year, the Balkan country signed an agreement with Washington allowing U.S. troops to use Bulgarian military facilities.
Bush also met with Prime Minister Sergei Stanishev, and Parvanov feted him at a formal luncheon at the National Museum of History outside town.
"Bulgaria is a valued ally of all of us in NATO, and a valued ally of the United States," Bush said in a toast to his hosts. "I thank you for your strong stand for freedom."
Monday's stop was the last leg of an eight-day sweep across Europe that drew tens of thousands of anti-Bush protesters at the Group of Eight summit and another wave of demonstrators during a weekend stop in Italy.
Reflecting on the trip Monday before heading back to Washington, Bush called it "a chance for America to talk about a liberty agenda."
He thanked Bulgaria for deploying 150 non-combat troops to Iraq and reached out to the loved ones of the 13 Bulgarian soldiers who have died there.
"The fight's tough in Iraq, and I know some of your families have suffered," he said. "The commitments that we're making are laying the foundations for peace for generations to come."
Bush said he was impressed by Bulgaria's transition to democracy and a free market economy, but he urged its leaders to step up their fight against organized crime and corruption as the best means of luring more U.S. and other foreign investment.
"My call is to continue to make reforms, and if you find corruption, rout it out," he said.
Bush said "the time is now" for Kosovo to gain independence from Serbia, resounding the main theme of his stop Sunday in Albania.
He also pressed Libya to release five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor sentenced to death on charges of deliberately infecting hundreds of hospitalized children with HIV. All six have maintained their innocence and say their confessions were extracted through beatings and torture.
The EU and the U.S. have repeatedly urged Libyan authorities to release the six, who have been in Libyan custody since 1999.
"We will continue to make clear to Libya that the release of these nurses is a high priority for our country," Bush said.
Once again, Bush was asked about Russian President Vladimir Putin's surprise counterproposal to the U.S. plan for a missile shield in Eastern Europe, based in the Czech Republic and Poland. Putin proposed instead a system anchored around a Soviet-era radar installation in Azerbaijan.
"I don't know whether it's technologically feasible," Bush said of Putin's idea, promising a review by experts.
Bulgaria's leaders are worried that the defense shield is not intended to cover southeastern parts of Europe, including their own country.
Another worry comes from the tensions the proposed shield have created between the United States and Russia. Moscow fiercely opposes the plan, fearing the shield is aimed at Russia. The U.S. says the shield is aimed at Iran, in case it develops nuclear weapons.
Bulgaria feels caught in the middle. It was the most loyal Soviet ally during the Cold War, and even now is almost entirely dependent on Russian energy supplies.
"Bulgaria should not have to choose between the friendship between the U.S. and the friendship with Russia," Parvanov said. He invited large U.S. companies to participate in trans-Balkan oil projects like the Burgas-Alexandroupolis pipeline and the Burgas-Vlora pipeline, calling them "an investment in peace and security in the region."
With his trip almost over, Bush turned his attention back to difficulties at home, saying his stalled immigration overhaul would be revived.
"I believe we can get it done," Bush said of the immigration bill, which has run into deep trouble in the U.S. Congress.
He dismissed a planned Senate no-confidence vote against embattled U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales as purely political. "I'll make the determination as to whether he's effective," Bush said.
Bush's comments on immigration reflected his determination to pass a bill to give millions of unlawful immigrants a path to citizenship. It is a top priority for the remainder of his presidency.