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U.S. Has Responsibility to Assist in AIDS Fight, Bush Says

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ENTEBBE, Uganda - President Bush, praising America's compassion for the suffering, said Friday that God and history had called the nation to fight the staggering AIDS crisis in Africa.

In language similar to that he has used in talking about the U.S.-led war against terrorism, the president said the United States had a responsibility to also lead the fight against AIDS.

"We are a great nation. We're a wealthy nation," he said during a speech at a Ugandan AIDS clinic. "We have a responsibility to help a neighbor in need, a brother and sister in crisis."

On the fourth day of his five-day tour of sub-Saharan Africa, Bush sought more forcefully to espouse some of the compassionate conservative philosophy that he showcases back home.

And he touted his five-year, $15 billion program to fight AIDS in a dozen of Africa's most-stricken nations and two in the Caribbean.

"I believe God has called us into action," Bush said with Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni looking on. "We look forward to being on the forefront of saying that when history called, we responded."

Bush was warmly received at a clinic run by The AIDS Support Organization, both in the small courtyard where he spoke and inside one of the small, brick buildings, where he met privately with about two dozen people suffering from the AIDS virus.

"It was very emotional," said White House communications director Dan Bartlett.

Outside, after his speech, Bush was entertained by a children's choir, whose members also have the AIDS virus.

In Uganda, the AIDS rate of infection has been cut to 5 percent - it's nearly 40 in Botswana - through aggressive public and private programs, including The AIDS Support Organization - the first and largest such indigenous organization in Africa.

"To win this fight," Bush said, praising Museveni, "governments must also act with compassion and purpose. Governments have got to lead."

Bush was in Uganda for less than four hours Friday as he neared the end of his African tour. He began Tuesday in Senegal, then moved on to South Africa and Botswana.

On Saturday, he plans to meet in Abuja, Nigeria, with President Olusegun Obasanjo, who has offered embattled Liberian President Charles Taylor asylum to leave his war-torn country.

Throughout his trip - as he has pursued his agenda of trade, aid and health care, particularly to fight AIDS - Bush also has faced persistent questions about the U.S.-led war in Iraq and the prospective U.S. involvement in the peacekeeping mission being fashioned to stabilize Liberia.

On Thursday, Secretary of State Colin Powell defended the administration on another front.

"The purpose of the trip was not a political exercise and was not designed to influence the election next year," he said, responding to a reporter's question during a briefing on the president's trip in Pretoria, South Africa.

"It was designed to deal with real problems facing people in need in Africa," Powell said. "It was designed to reinforce our relationship with those countries that are moving in the right direction through dealing with the crisis of HIV/AIDS and to improve their economic situation.

"It was intended for the president to speak to leaders who are trying to resolve regional conflicts here in the continent."

In addition to Liberia, another hot spot is Zimbabwe, where human rights advocates charge that the government of President Robert Mugabe has been increasingly violent in dealing with opposition since Zimbabwe won independence from Britain 23 years ago.

The issue was discussed Wednesday during Bush's consultations with South African President Thabo Mbeki, who has been working intently behind the scenes to address what he calls the urgent "political and economic challenges of Zimbabwe."

"It's necessary to resolve this matter as quickly as is possible," Mbeki said.

Bush agreed, calling the violence and economic devastation in Zimbabwe a "very sad situation."

"Zimbabwe is an important country for the economic health of Africa," Bush said in a joint news conference with Mbeki. "A free, peaceful Zimbabwe has got the capacity to deliver a lot of goods and services, which are needed on this continent in order to help alleviate suffering."


(c) 2003, The Dallas Morning News. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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