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Bush defends humanitarian record with pope at Vatican
In this photo released by the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano, Pope Benedict VI poses with U.S. President George Bush at the end of a private audience at the Vatican Saturday, June 9, 2007. During his stay in Rome, President Bush, after the private audience with the pontiff, will meet Premier Romano Prodi and former Premier and conservative leader Silvio Berlusconi. - photo by Associated Press
    ROME - President Bush, in his first meeting with Pope Benedict XVI, defended his humanitarian record around the globe, telling the papal leader on Saturday about U.S. efforts to battle AIDS in Africa.

After posing for photos and sharing a few laughs, Benedict asked the president about his meetings with leaders of other industrialized nations in Germany _ the pontiff's homeland. Then, the topic changed to international aid.

"I've got a very strong AIDS initiative," Bush said, sitting with Benedict at a small desk in the pope's private library at the Vatican.

The president promised the pope that he'd work to get Congress to double the current U.S. commitment for combatting AIDS in Africa to $30 billion over the next five years.

The pope also asked the president about his meeting in Germany with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has expressed opposition to a U.S. missile shield in Europe.

"The dialogue with Putin was also good?" the pope asked.

Bush, eyeing photographers and reporters who were about to be escorted from the room, replied: "Umm. I'll tell you in a minute."

The pontiff gave the president a drawing of St. Peter's Basillica, an official Vatican medal and coins. "It's beautiful, thank you," Bush said of the drawing.

The president gave the pope a rare edition of an autobiography of John Carroll, the first archbishop in the United States and founder of the Roman Catholic Church in America. Bush also gave the pope lithographs of documents from the National Archives and a walking sticking made by a former homeless man in Dallas, Texas. Bush also has one of the white sticks, which are inscribed with the Ten Commandments.

Bush's visit was met with heavy security. Thousands of police deployed in downtown Rome to counter demonstrations by anti-globalization groups and far-left parties against Bush's meetings with the pope and Italian officials.

Dozens of trucks and buses surrounded the Colosseum, the downtown Piazza Venezia and other historic venues as scores of officers, some in anti-riot gear, poured from their vehicles.

White House deputy press secretary Dana Perino shrugged off the anti-Bush protests. "That is what democracy is all about," she said. "He understands not everybody is going to agree with him."

Bush was greeted in the courtyard of the Vatican by members of the Swiss Guard, the elite papal security corps dressed in their distinctive orange, blue and red-stripped uniforms.

In a statement, the Vatican said Bush had "warm" talks with the pope and the Vatican's No. 2 official, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone. They discussed international politics, particularly in the Middle East, the Israel-Palestinian conflict, Lebanon, the "worrisome situation in Iraq" and the "critical conditions in which the Christian communities (in Iraq) are found," the statement said.

The pontiff expressed his hope for a `'regional" and `'negotiated" solution of conflicts and crises that afflict the region, the Vatican said. Attention was also give to Africa, the humanitarian crisis in Darfur and Latin America.

They also discussed moral and religious questions relating to human rights and religious freedom, the defense and promotion of life, marriage and the family and sustainable development, the Vatican said.

Bush arrived in Rome Friday night, after a stop in the Czech Republic, three days at a summit of industrialized democracies on Germany's northern coast, and a quick, three-hour visit to Poland. A stomach ailment forced Bush to miss a few meetings at the summit in Germany, but Perino said the president, while "not 100 percent," was feeling better.

The president stays in Rome Saturday night before going on to Albania and Bulgaria.

While in Rome, Bush visited, at the U.S. embassy, with members of a lay Roman Catholic organization, thanking them for being part of "the international army of compassion" and said he shares their commitment to helping the poor. The Sant'Egidio Community has a $25 million program to provide free antiretroviral drugs for HIV-positive people in 10 African countries, along with follow-up and home care.

Bush's limousine stalled between the Vatican and the U.S. embassy because of an unknown problem, White House counselor Dan Bartlett said. It took about two minutes for the motorcade to get going again. He said Bush did not get out of the car during the stop and resumed his ride in the same limousine. As it left the embassy, Bush's motorcade passed a mechanic working under the hood of one of the presidential limousines.

Bush began his day with a short meeting with Italian President Giorgio Napolitano at Quirinale Palace, his official residence. Later, he met with Premier Romano Prodi.

Perino said the Italian president told Bush that there had been speculation that U.S.-Italy relations would slide under Prodi. She said Bush told Napolitano: "The opposite has proven true."

Italian-U.S. relations, however, are a bit strained.

Just hours before Bush's arrival Friday, the first trial involving the CIA's extraordinary rendition program opened in a Milan courtroom. Along with the 26 Americans on trial for the abduction of an Egyptian cleric, a U.S. soldier is on trial in Rome for the March 2005 slaying of an Italian spy in Baghdad. In both cases, the U.S. citizens are being tried in absentia.

Meanwhile, a report out Friday from European investigator Dick Marty accused Italy and Germany of obstructing his probe into alleged secret prisons run by CIA in Europe. Marty said they were located in Poland and Romania from 2003 to 2005 to interrogate suspected terrorists.

Italy also has withdrawn troops from Iraq and is reluctant to send additional soldiers to Afghanistan.

Washington is concerned that U.S. troops, along with those from Canada and Britain and elsewhere, are the only NATO countries sending forces to fight the Taliban in the most violent areas in the south. Other NATO-contributing countries, such as Germany, France and Italy, restrict the use of their forces to relatively peaceful areas of the north.

Prodi ousted Silvio Berlusconi a year ago, replacing a like-minded conservative and staunch ally of Bush's with a center-left leader whose government has spared Washington no criticism.

Despite differences, Bush and Prodi have said they want good ties. Still, the U.S. leader is hedging his bets on Italian politics. He'll end his day with a private talk with his old friend Berlusconi.


Associated Press Writers Ariel David and Alessandra Rizzo in Rome contributed to this story.

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