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Bush Heads to Australia Following Iraq Stop

President Bush is on his way to Australia for the annual summit of Asia-Pacific nations following an unannounced stop in Iraq where he held talks with Iraqi officials and U.S. military commanders. VOA White House Correspondent Paula Wolfson reports from Sydney, where the president will also be meeting one-on-one with regional leaders.

The main focus of the 21-nation summit will be economic and environmental matters.

Members are expected to push for a successful conclusion of the current round of world trade talks. They are also likely to seek some sort of consensus on the controversial issue of climate change.

Dennis Wilder, the top White House National Security Council official for Asian affairs, says the Bush administration considers the forum to be extremely important.

He notes the Asia-Pacific region accounts for 56 percent of the world's gross domestic product and half of the world's trade.

"This president is committed to this region and he's committed to this region for very good reasons," said Dennis Wilder. "Our economic future is tied to this region. Our security future is tied to this region."

Wilder's predecessor (during President Bush's first term), Michael Green, says these meetings of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation grouping are notable not so much for the agreements that emerge, but for the fact that so many world leaders are gathered in one place at the same time. Green, who now teaches at Georgetown University (in Washington, D.C.), likens the APEC summits to a professional convention.

"These big multi-lateral summits like APEC are kind of like when someone in business goes to a convention," said Michael Green. "The big convention parts are interesting. You sort of set the tone or standard. But the really important part is the networking - or the schmoozing. I think most people who are in business or academia have experienced that."

He says the formal summit sessions can result in important agreements. But he says the real progress is often made in more casual face-to-face conversations between the president and other leaders.

In many ways, the really important part is when he goes off and spends an hour having tea with the Chinese president or sits down with the Japanese and Australian leaders to talk about Iraq and fighting terrorism," he said. "That stuff is pure gold because Asia is far away [from Washington] and here you have all the major leaders gathered in place for three days. So it is really is a chance to do retail diplomacy.

President Bush is planning to meet individually outside the summit sessions with the presidents of China, Russia, South Korea and Indonesia, and the prime ministers of Japan and host, Australia.

The NSC's Dennis Wilder says the president remains very much engaged with Asia and its leaders. He says the bilateral meetings will give Mr. Bush an opportunity to discuss matters that go outside the formal APEC agenda - such as Iraq, Darfur, Iran, North Korea and the repression of pro-Democracy activists in Burma.

"He thinks about Asia a lot," said wilder. "He thinks about China and its future and the future direction of China. He thinks about our alliance structure in East Asia and how we can improve it. And we have done a lot over the last few years, with force transformation in Korea and in Japan and with the Australians, and we'll be doing more to build those alliance structures so that we can meet the challenges ahead on the political security side.

The president is going to be one of the first participants to arrive in Australia for the APEC summit, and he may be the first to depart - leaving midway through the gathering to head back to Washington.

He will be returning at the start of what could be a crucial week for his presidency. On Monday, September 10, the two top U.S. officials in Iraq - military commander General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker - will testify before Congress. They will give a preview of a much-anticipated Bush administration report to lawmakers on progress in Iraq that is due on September 15.