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Why Albania embraces Bush

The largely Muslim country, one of Europe's poorest, sees the visit Sunday by President Bush as a reward for its support of the war on terror.

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Dogged by protest for much of his European tour, President Bush received a warmer welcome Sunday in Albania, a former communist country eager to show that it remains one of America's staunchest allies.

Tirana, the capital, was festooned with giant American flags and the president was greeted by Albanians in red-white-and-blue Uncle Sam top hats. Mr. Bush, the first sitting president to visit Albania, traveled down a boulevard renamed in his honor.

"We have come to give our hearts to America and to President Bush to say that we are with them in the war on terrorism and we appreciate what they have done for Kosovo and for Albanians," says Arjanit Iljazi, a nurse who waited for hours to catch a glimpse of Bush in a central square Sunday morning.

Albanians see this weekend's visit, the second-to-last stop on the president's Eastern European tour, as a reward for their country's staunch pro-American sentiment and its support of US antiterrorism efforts. It's sent troops to Iraq and Afghanistan, frozen the assets of suspected terrorist-financiers, and taken in eight former Guantánamo Bay detainees whom no other country would take in.

"There is a strong feeling of gratefulness that the Albanian people nourish towards the United States, whether it be their politicians or people," says Ferit Hoxha, secretary general of the Albanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Roots of pro-American sentiment

The roots of Albanian pro-American sentiment, people here say, date to Woodrow Wilson's support of the country's independence after World War I and were cemented during the 1999 NATO intervention in Kosovo, a majority ethnic Albanian province of Serbia. Albanians also see the US as the strongest advocate for the independence of Kosovo, whose status is due to be reviewed by the UN Security Council this month.

Although Albania's contribution to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are numerically small – 120 troops in Mosul, and 30 in Afghanistan with an additional 110 to come soon – they have a symbolic importance for the US. The US sees Albania as a model of moderate Islam and religious tolerance. Officially 70 percent Muslim, the country has a strong secular ethos after nearly a quarter of a century of state-enforced atheism under communism.

"I appreciated the fact that Albania is a model of religious tolerance," Bush said in a press conference with the Albanian prime minister. "And I appreciate the fact that Albania is a trusted friend and a strong ally."

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