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Last Updated: Wednesday, 7 April, 2004, 00:55 GMT 01:55 UK
Analysis: Friends to meet amid crisis

by Jon Leyne
BBC correspondent in Washington

Tony Blair and George Bush at press conference in London
Bush has a lot more at stake politically than Blair
US and British officials say the upcoming meeting between President George W Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair had been scheduled instead of being called quickly due to events in Iraq.

And British officials quoted in the American press deny that it is a crisis meeting.

But if it is not a crisis meeting, it certainly is a meeting during a crisis.

They have a lot on the agenda, but it is an agenda dominated by Iraq.

Unclear path ahead

The handover of sovereignty is scheduled to take place in less than three months, and they have no plan for a functioning government in place.

Most people believe that it will end up being a modified version of the current interim governing council, but there is no plan on the table.

Nobody knows the structure let alone the people.

In addition to concerns about the handover, there are the obvious fears about security with the Shia uprising and what happened in Falluja.

US Marines battle insurgents on outskirts of Falluja
US troops are struggling to quell a revolt in Iraq ahead of the handover
And they don't seem to have any political role for their allies in this new structure. Nobody has really thought about it. They seem to have just forgotten about it.

Under the Coalitional Provisional Authority, there was a British second- in-command with Sir Jeremy Greenstock.

He reportedly did not get on well with US administrator Paul Bremer and has now apparently just left to return to London.

With the scheduled handover, some of the powers under the Coalitional Provisional Authority will go to the new interim Iraqi government.

But then another chunk of those powers will go the US Embassy, which will resemble in many ways the Coalition Provisional Authority, and allies will not have a role there.

Wider Middle East issues

Another issue that cannot fail to be on their agenda will be the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

You have a week on which Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak will meet with President Bush at his ranch in Texas.

Two days later, Ariel Sharon is set to meet with the president at the White House.

Mr Blair will want to pitch in, as he always does, on the Middle East and will appeal to President Bush to soften the situation there.

Frankly, by the time Mr Bush and Mr Sharon will have met, it will be too late for Mr Blair to have much influence.

Political fallout

The risks for President Bush are obvious in an election year.

The political damage has been remarkably limited over Iraq, but now it is looking far more dangerous to Mr Bush politically.

Tony Blair and George Bush at press conference in London
Bush has a lot more at stake politically than Blair
He really needs the handover to go smoothly so he can say that things are getting better.

If the handover goes badly, is botched or does not happen and more American troops must go the region, then people will start questioning whether Iraq is another Vietnam, another quagmire.

In the electoral calculus, Mr Bush probably thinks that he can get away with handing over some sovereignty in Iraq.

It might be in some ways meaningless, but he will do that. But it only postpones the problems in Iraq for a few months.

The political risks for Tony Blair are in some ways less.

There is not the aversion to casualties in Britain as there is the US, meaning that the political fallout is less if troops face fiercer resistance and take on more casualties.

However, if the British people see a situation in which they have a large number their troops in Iraq but no British political input in Iraq, people will ask another round of questions.

Tony Blair does not face the voters this year, and his political position is less precarious than Mr Bush.

He does not face serious opposition from the Tories, who supported the war anyway, and he is facing less of a threat from within his own party.

But with voters going to the polls in the US in November, Mr Bush faces very immediate political danger.

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