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Friday, 23 February, 2001, 09:37 GMT
Blair set to meet Bush
Tony and Cherie Blair in Ottowa
The Blairs began their North American tour in Canada
UK Prime Minister Tony Blair is just hours away from his first face to face meeting with American President George W Bush.

The White House has billed the meeting as "informal" and a chance for the two leaders to get to know each other.

The purpose of this meeting is to do face to face what you cannot do on the telephone - which is really to get to know somebody

Condoleezza Rice
But serious political issues including the situation in Iraq, the EU defence force, and US missile defence shield plans are all on the agenda.

Both leaders will also be keen to show that the "special relationship" between the UK and US will continue, after speculation that it would weaken as a result of Mr Bush's election.

Mr Blair and his wife Cherie arrived in Washington on Thursday evening after visiting Canada.

He is expected to start on Friday with interviews on US television before meeting American Vice-President Dick Cheney at 1600 GMT.

The Blairs will then travel by helicopter to the presidential retreat at Camp David in Maryland, arriving at about 1745 GMT, where they will be met by Mr Bush and his wife Laura.

Mr Blair, who was close to Mr Bush's predecessor Bill Clinton, has had two telephone conversations with Mr Bush since he became president.

The president's senior foreign policy advisor, Condoleezza Rice, said Friday's meeting would help both men to get to know each other.

Informal setting

"The purpose of this meeting is to do face to face what you cannot do on the telephone - which is really to get to know somebody, to spend some time in both discussions about issues, but also in an informal setting with family."

Describing it as more of an informal working meeting than an official summit, she said "massive new agreements" should not be expected.

George W. Bush
President Bush: Extending the hand of friendship
The meeting comes less than a week after Britain and the US jointly launched air strikes on Iraq for breaching the southern no-fly zone.

Mr Blair has defended both last week's strikes, and Thursday's American bombings of air defence targets in northern Iraq.

'Son of Star Wars'

Mr Bush may also seek to secure UK support for his plans to develop a ballistic missile defence shield - dubbed "Son of Star Wars".

Some European governments have criticised the plan saying it could trigger a new arms race.

The UK Government has been cautious about the plan, but says it understands American concerns.

Speaking ahead of Mr Blair's meeting, Foreign Secretary Robin Cook told BBC Radio 4's Today programme that the prime minister would have to handle the issue with care.

But he added: "We are also worried about the fact that the US does have a sense that it may be vulnerable and it's important that that is addressed."

Mr Blair is expected to tell Mr Bush that he will need to hear full details of the project before he can decide whether to allow British-based tracking systems to be used.

The Tories have already pledged unconditional support for the project.

Mr Cook rejected a claim by former US Defence Secretary Caspar Weinberger in a newspaper interview on Friday that Mr Blair and Mr Bush would be ideologically split over the issue of the European rapid reaction force.

Mr Cook said Mr Weinberger was "out of touch" with the White House, which had seen the proposals in detail and was open to the idea because it would not undermine or be separate to Nato.

But shadow defence secretary Iain Duncan Smith told the programme that the rapid reaction force "is wholly separate from Nato" and that Mr Cook was being "disingenuous".

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See also:

23 Feb 01 | Americas
US and the UK: Special relationship?
22 Feb 01 | UK Politics
Blair wants 'best of both worlds'
22 Feb 01 | UK Politics
Blair defends new Iraq strikes
16 Feb 01 | UK Politics
Blair 'will co-operate with Star Wars'
22 Feb 01 | UK Politics
Europe no threat to Nato, says Blair
22 Feb 01 | UK Politics
Blair the globetrotter
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