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Last Updated: Wednesday, 16 July, 2003, 14:54 GMT 15:54 UK
Iraq woes bedevil UK-US ties

By Paul Reynolds
BBC News Online World Affairs Correspondent

UK Prime Minister Tony Blair is poised to visit Washington for talks with President George W Bush and to address a joint session of Congress.

Bush and Blair
Tension persists over Iraq claims and Guantanamo Bay inmates

The Washington visit comes at a difficult time for Mr Blair and he is at risk of encountering a problem that Margaret Thatcher once faced - being received better abroad than at home.

He will be lauded at the White House as America's dependable ally and warm statements will be made about him in Congress, which specialises in political hyperbole.

Yet the questions which have dogged him at home will follow him across the Atlantic, and now the scepticism about the intelligence on Iraq has begun to lap around Mr Bush's feet as well.

They have two problems to overcome. The first is the issue of the intelligence on which the decision to go to war was based. The second is the slow progress which has been made towards stability in Iraq.

They will no doubt stand by their intelligence assessments, though Mr Blair will have to tread carefully when he justifies the British claim that Iraq sought uranium from Niger, since this is doubted by the CIA and has landed Mr Bush himself in trouble.

They may agree to press the UN to approve an international force for Iraq

Then there is the difficult matter of whether the US will give a military trial to two British prisoners held in Guantanamo Bay.

Overall, they will probably try to switch attention from the origins of the war to the results of the war.

This process has already started lower down the US and British governments.

'Negative press'

This week, the British representative in Iraq, John Sawers, briefed reporters in London in a video conference and spoke optimistically about the new Governing Council which has just been set up.

Some of his frustration at the reaction to the Council came through when he attacked the reporting of events in Iraq, saying that it was "designed to match the negative journalism in London".

Tony Blair may have found in Bill Clinton a soul mate in domestic policy but in foreign policy he has found George Bush

He said that the Council had credibility, would draw up a new constitution and that it might be possible to hold elections for a new government in Iraq "sometime in 2004".

The UK Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, stressed to Parliament the evils of the Saddam regime and the possibilities for the future.

He quoted Professor Margaret Cox, the leader of the British forensic team in Iraq investigating mass graves, as saying that "the Saddam regime was propped up with the bones of the Iraqi people buried beneath its sands".

He quoted the latest Red Cross assessment that 300,000 Iraqis were "missing".

Expect more of this kind of language from Mr Blair in Washington and beyond.

Specifically they may agree to press the UN to approve an international force for Iraq - a request which the Governing Council itself will make when it sends a delegation to New York soon.

Odd couple

Mr Bush and Mr Blair make, in many ways, an odd couple. They do not share the same political philosophy, yet they have readily shared a decision to go to war.

They have in common a sense of moral rectitude which leads them to seek bold solutions, just as President Harry Truman once did, not hesitating for example to go to war over Korea.

It is sometimes said that Mr Blair acts as a restraining influence on Mr Bush. Yet remember that it was Mr Blair who pressed for ground troops to be used in Kosovo, long before former President Bill Clinton could face the prospect.

Mr Blair may have found in Mr Clinton a soul mate in domestic policy. But in foreign policy he has found George Bush.

Among other issues coming to the fore, watch for North Korea and Iran.

Mr Blair goes on from Washington to Japan, South Korea and China - and what to do about North Korea will be a major theme.

As for Iran, and the questions about its nuclear intentions, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon raised this with Mr Blair earlier this week.

He also made a point of calling back British journalists who were leaving a briefing to say that within a year the problem might be "irreversible" - presumably meaning that Iran might develop a nuclear weapon.

The problems over intelligence on Iraq will impact on these potential crises as well, because if the intelligence on Iraq is found to be faulty, faith in future assessments will be lacking.

There is currently a reported problem in Washington over Syria.

A Bush administration hawk, Under Secretary of State John Bolton, is said to have delayed testimony to Congress because the CIA objected to a claim he was going to make that Syria represented a threat.


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