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Tunisia 'Making Progress on Reforms', Says Bush - 2004-02-18

President Bush says Tunisia is making progress on reforms, but more remains to be done. He says Tunisia is a friend and ally of the United States, and is standing with America on vital security matters.

"I want to thank you for working with the United States in the war on terror," Mr. Bush said. "I want to thank you for your understanding the need for Iraq to be democratic and free."

Mr. Bush spoke at the start of a meeting at the White House with Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali. He offered praise for Tunisia's record in areas such as education and women's rights. But he also said there are other concerns that must be addressed.

"I look forward to talking to you about the need to have a press corps that is vibrant and free, as well as an open political process," said President Bush.

President Bush made clear he believes these problems can be resolved, and he indicated - much as Secretary of State Colin Powell did Tuesday - that he can raise these issues with Tunisia because it is such a strong friend.

"Tunisia can help lead the greater Middle East to reform and freedom, something that I know is necessary for peace for the long term," he said.

In his comments at the White House, Mr. Ben Ali talked about his country's long relationship with the United States. He said they share key principles, such as the promotion of democracy and human rights and the need to combat terror.

This is his first official visit to Washington in 14 years, and comes at a time when Tunis is preparing to host a meeting of Arab leaders on March 29. Those talks are expected to center on ways to move the stalled Middle East peace process forward.