Australian John Howard begins visit to Washington

President George W. Bush joined Australian Prime Minister John Howard for a little tree-planting ceremony and dinner Sunday in advance of serious talks expected to focus on the nuclear standoff with Iran and continuing military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Howard was scheduled to meet Monday with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld prior to sessions Tuesday at the White House where he is to be honored with a black-tie dinner.

He visited with Vice President Dick Cheney on Saturday.

Bush and Howard were joined by their wives at the Australian ambassador's residence at dusk Sunday for the ceremonial planting of two trees, an American Elm and a Southern Magnolia, taken from the White House compound to demonstrate the strong ties between the two nations.

Bush thanked Howard for his "strong support of the liberty agenda" and "deep desire for the world to be a peaceful place."

"I indicated to the president a moment ago that it was here on this lawn that I addressed a news conference on the 12th of September, 2001, when I said that Australia would stand side-by-side with the United States in responding to the new threat of terrorism," Howard said. "That resolve is as strong now as it was (then). ... These trees are a wonderful symbol of that friendship."

After throwing some dirt on the freshly planted trees, Bush firmly planted his shovel in the lawn and leaned on it, cowboy style, to much laughter and applause, reports the AP.

I.L.