Blair to visit Bush for Iraq talks next week

/ Source: The Associated Press

British Prime Minister Tony Blair is due in Washington next week to meet with President Bush about the situation in Iraq and the Middle East.

The two leaders will meet late next week, U.S. officials said.

Blair and Bush have a close relationship. Despite criticism at home, the British leader is one of the staunchest public supporters of U.S. foreign policy in Iraq, the Middle East and elsewhere.

Echoing a message Bush delivered on Monday, Blair said Tuesday in London that a growing Shiite uprising against the U.S.-led occupation in several cities in Iraq will only reinforce the coalition’s determination to build democratic institutions and hand over power on schedule.

“We don’t get put off by this. We redouble our efforts,” Blair said with Iraqi foreign minister Hoshyar Zebari at his side. “Iraq has been a deeply damaged country, and going from totalitarianism to freedom was always bound to be difficult.”

The coalition plans a June 30 handover of sovereignty to the Iraqis. Bush says the “the deadline remains firm” despite the violence and questions from members of his own party whether the transfer could be accomplished smoothly.

Last meeting was in November
Blair generally limits any mention of problems he has with U.S. policy — such as his opposition to now-withdrawn U.S. steel tariffs and the former presence in U.S. custody in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, of British terrorism suspects — to private sessions with Bush.

The two leaders’ last meeting was in November, when Bush traveled to Britain and paid a visit to Blair’s home in Sedgefield in rural northeast England.

Since then, they announced a joint agreement with Libya for the North African nation to give up its program of weapons of mass destruction.

Bush and Blair also are expected to discuss a U.N. plan to reunify Cyprus. In parallel referendums April 24 in both the Greek and Turkish parts of the Mediterranean island, voters will be asked whether to accept the U.N. blueprint.

Iraq as domestic issue in Britain
The Bush administration allowed Blair to be the first to disclose that news — as he had done with the capture of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. The move reflected an effort by Washington, aware that Blair has suffered politically at home for his unstinting support of Bush, to give the prime minister a boost.

Blair’s poll ratings have remained low, however, as the debate about whether the Iraq war was legal continues to rage and criticism over the failure to find banned weapons in Iraq increases.

Like Bush, Blair was forced to support the creation of a commission to examine the prewar intelligence on Iraq in the wake of statements from the former top U.S. weapons hunter that there are likely no banned weapons to be found in Iraq.