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Bush urges Congress to renew AIDS relief

U.S. President George W. Bush rejected proposed Democratic changes to his prized AIDS relief program, issuing a challenge Sunday to Congress to "stop the squabbling" and renew it.
Image: Child attends a roundtable session with US President Bush in Dar es Salaam
Three-year-old Faith Mang'ehe, whose mother is HIV positive, attends a roundtable session with her mother on AIDS relief with U.S. President George W. Bush at Amana District Hospital in Dar es Salaam on Sunday.  Jim Young / Reuters
/ Source: The Associated Press

U.S. President George W. Bush rejected proposed Democratic changes to his prized AIDS relief program, issuing a challenge Sunday to Congress to "stop the squabbling" and renew it.

Tanzanian leader Jakaya Kikwete made an impassioned appeal for the same thing, saying thousands in his country would orphan their children if U.S. lawmakers do not act.

There is broad support in the Democratic-controlled Congress for the anti-AIDS spending that has become the largest-ever international health initiative devoted to one disease, so there is not much danger of failing to continue it.

But with the program expiring this year, a political and ideological showdown is brewing in Washington over the initiative's terms and size. Bush hopes that putting real, grateful faces on the program -- moms and dads controlling the disease and children who were born HIV-free to infected mothers, all because of U.S.-funded treatment -- would strengthen his hand in the debate.

The president's three-night stay in this vast East African nation takes him to a part of the continent that is important in the U.S. fight against terrorism. The bombed-out former U.S. Embassy in Dar es Salaam still stands as a stark reminder of deadly attacks in Tanzania and Nairobi, Kenya, in 1998.

The visit to Tanzania is the longest of Bush's six-day African trip and longer than usual for the president anywhere. The stay and the celebration of a new, five-year US$698 million (euro476 million) U.S. aid pact were intended as goodwill messages to Tanzania's large Muslim population.

It seemed to work. In contrast to the protests that often greet him at home and abroad, Bush repeatedly received enthusiastic receptions in Tanzania. A large and spirited crowd waved U.S. and Tanzanian flags Sunday as he walked into the graceful, oceanfront State House for meetings with President Kikwete.

Thousands more people crowded along Dar es Salaam's dusty and rutted streets as Bush went from event to event. Special local cloth was woven in honor of Bush's visit; his picture was emblazoned across shirts and sarongs.

"Different people may have different views about you and your administration and your legacy," said Kikwete after he and Bush signed the aid deal. "But we in Tanzania, if we are to speak for ourselves and for Africa, we know for sure that you, Mr. President, and your administration, have been good friends of our country and have been good friends of Africa."

The President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, known as PEPFAR, has raised the number of Africans on anti-retroviral treatments from 50,000 to 1.2 million.

Democrats want to strip requirements that one-third of the money go to abstinence-until-marriage programs and that some groups sign anti-prostitution pledges.

Some Democrats also say that Bush's request for US$30 billion (euro20 billion) over the next five years, twice his original commitment, is too little, and would merely continue the program at the current year's ramped-up levels. Congress has put nearly US$19 billion (euro13 billion) into the program so far.

‘Stop the squabbling’
Republican leaders say the Democratic changes could derail renewal of the program, and Bush made clear he agrees.

"I understand there's voices on both ends of the political spectrum trying to alter the program. I would ask Congress to listen to leaders on the continent of Africa, analyze what works, stop the squabbling and get the program reauthorized," the president said.

Later, Bush said that Amana Hospital was the best exhibit he could imagine for his argument. Strolling through the complex of low-slung buildings and sun-drenched courtyards, Bush met HIV-positive patients and doctors in the facility's AIDS treatment wing, funded in part with money from his AIDS program.

"I'm very lucky," said Tatu Msangi, who was tested for HIV while pregnant, received treatment and delivered a healthy baby, Faith, who sat in her lap while she spoke. "Me and Faith have a bright future ahead."

Kikwete said the program has allowed thousands of children such as Faith to avoid suffering the deaths of parents. "My passionate appeal is for PEPFAR to continue," he said.