Bush, Pope Discuss 'Worrisome' Iraq

In the home stretch of his European tour, President Bush continues to attract demonstrators, this time in Rome.

Tens of thousands of protestors took to the streets to show opposition to the Iraq war and to the expansion of an American military base in Italy. Some upset tables and threw bottles at police who responded with tear gas.

The protests did not affect the president's schedule, which included visits with Pope Benedict XVI and Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi.

The pope told Bush he had concerns about "the worrisome situation in Iraq."

The pontiff also showed his interest in another "worrisome situation," relations between Washington and Moscow. He probed Bush for a first-hand account of his talks in Germany with Russian President Vladimir Putin, asking, "The dialogue with Putin was also good?"

The president, not wanting to give away any sensitive details to the press corps on hand, said, "I'll tell you in a minute." Both laughed.

Later, the president said, "I was talking to a very smart, loving man. ... I was in awe and it was a moving experience."

Bush said the pope "did express deep concern about the Christians in Iraq, that he was concerned that the society that was evolving would not tolerate the Christian religion."

The president said he assured Pope Benedict that the United States is working hard "to make sure that people lived up to the constitution, the modern constitution voted on by the people that would honor people from different walks of life and different attitudes."

After meeting with Bush at Chigi Palace, Premier Prodi said there are no problems between them: "We do share the same views with regard to many issues, many matters. And we basically agree on how the future of the world should look, should be."

That positive assessment may surprise some analysts. Prodi, who heads a center-left coalition, reversed Italy's earlier support of the Iraq war. His predecessor, Silvio Berlusconi, was a staunch Bush ally, and sent Italian troops to Iraq. But he lost a close election last year, partly because of the war's unpopularity.

Prodi had called the war "a grave mistake." After he took power, the Italian government withdrew its troops from Iraq.

Today, with Prodi at his side, Bush said, "Bilateral relations are pretty darn solid."

Both men seemed eager to avoid any conflict today, and that apparently meant avoiding any discussion of Iraq.

While the president has been in Europe, one of his most important domestic initiatives, immigration reform, has stalled badly in the Senate. Democrats blamed lack of leadership from the White House. Shortly after he returns to Washington, the president will meet with GOP leaders in an attempt to revive an immigration measure.

Today, Bush said Pope Benedict told him "he's watching the immigration debate very closely in America."

While Bush still hopes Congress will pass an immigration bill, he admitted defeat on another front. On Friday, Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced that the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Peter Pace, would be not re-nominated for another two-year term. Gates noted that confirmation hearings on Capitol Hill would be contentious, a reference to congressional disillusionment with the conduct of the Iraq war.

Today, the president praised Pace and said the decision "not to move forward with a renomination speaks to the U.S. Congress and the climate in the U.S. Congress."

Bush can look forward with relief to warmer welcomes at his final stops in Albania and Bulgaria, where he is much better liked. Albania even plans to honor him by renaming the street in front of parliament. In the future, it will be known as George Bush Street.