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Bush wants NATO to welcome European democracies

BUCHAREST (Reuters) - NATO must be ready to welcome all European democracies that want to join and meet the criteria, U.S. President George W. Bush will say in a speech on Wednesday before the start of an alliance summit in Romania.

Bush wants NATO to agree to let the former Soviet republics of Georgia and Ukraine start the process of joining NATO, despite resistance from Russia and skepticism from the Western defense pact’s European members.

He will also urge NATO to “maintain its resolve and finish the fight in Afghanistan”, and say that the alliance’s top priority must be fighting al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, according to excerpts of Bush’s speech released on Tuesday.

Bush is seeking a greater commitment of troops in Afghanistan from NATO partners reluctant to deploy in areas of heavy combat against a resurgent Taliban and its al Qaeda allies.

Bush, in Kiev earlier on Tuesday on the way to his farewell NATO summit in Bucharest, vowed to press for Ukraine and Georgia to be put on the path to joining NATO.

“My country’s position is clear: NATO should welcome Georgia and Ukraine into the Membership Action Plan,” Bush will say on Wednesday. “And NATO membership must remain open to all of Europe’s democracies that seek it, and are ready to share in the responsibilities of NATO membership.”

Russia opposes Ukraine and Georgia joining the alliance, seeing it as an encroachment on the former Soviet sphere of influence. France and Germany have expressed misgivings about letting the two countries into NATO.

Bush will also keep up efforts to convince Russian President Vladimir Putin, a guest at the NATO summit, that a planned U.S. missile shield based in parts of eastern Europe is not a threat to Moscow, which strongly opposes the project.

“The need for missile defense in Europe is real and it is urgent,” Bush will say. “Iran is pursuing technology that could be used to produce nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles of increasing range that could deliver them.”

Iran says it wants nuclear capability for strictly civilian purposes.

Bush said in Kiev that he hoped proposals to make the missile defense system more transparent would yield progress at his weekend meeting with Putin at the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi.

Reporting by Matt Spetalnick, Editing by Timothy Heritage