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Beleaguered Blair to meet Bush

Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair   Odd Andersen / Pool via Reuters file
/ Source: NBC News

A year ago, President Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair cheered a successful military campaign that swiftly overwhelmed the Iraqi army and booted Saddam Hussein and his Baathist regime from power.

But when they meet Friday in Washington, they confront an increasingly unsettled Iraq where mounting casualties, a wave of kidnappings and uncertainty about the future could undo their best-laid plans, as well as their long-term political aspirations.

The last time Blair visited the U.S. capital was in July of 2003. Fresh from the military victory, the two leaders had hoped Iraq would be standing on its own two feet by now and ready for self-government. 

Instead, as result of intense fighting involving Sunni militants around Fallujah and Shiite fighters in Baghdad and the southern part of the country, April has proved to be the deadliest month for Americans in Iraq to date, with at least 89 U.S. soldiers killed.

Some critics, notably Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy, have compared the situation to the Vietnam War, an evaluation roundly dismissed by Bush at a news conference this week. Yet, neither Bush nor Blair will want their memoirs to be tainted by such comparable failure.

For both leaders, re-election is around the corner. Before going to war last year, Blair said he was prepared to meet his "Maker" and justify those actions which had led to "those who have died or have been horribly maimed as a result of my decisions.”

He will have to justify himself to the British public first.

Alongside Bush, Blair has reiterated the need to persevere in Iraq with "absolute conviction" that military action was the right course of action.

But, like Bush, the ferocity of attacks from Iraqi insurgents are putting Blair under increasing pressure both from the public in Great Britain, and his own political party.

Under Fire’
According to a recent poll conducted for the BBC, the British people still back Blair — but only just. Forty-eight percent of those surveyed believe he was right to go to war with Iraq and forty-three percent oppose the war.

There also is evidence that Blair’s governing Labour party is now losing ground to the opposition Conservative Party.

Reports last week emerged that a number of Blair’s own party, who were persuaded to vote for war last March, are now expressing doubts over their decision to support him.

Many of them are not happy about the rebuilding of Iraq and are concerned by what they see as a heavy-handed approach by the coalition forces.

“The method of peacekeeping has to change when you've won the war,” argued Clive Solely, a Labour MP.

“When I hear some of the language used, for example to kill or capture a Muslim cleric, it doesn't win you any friends and you have to think of what message that sends to the Muslim people. That sort of thing needs to change as does the method of policing in a state which has in fact, come under our control.”

Sir Tim Garden, a Professor of Defense studies at King’s College University in London agrees that when Blair arrives in Washington, tactics need to be discussed.

“There is becoming quite a divide between the approach taken by the European members of the coalition and the U.S. Army’s very strong and heavy almost-war fighting tactics that have been used in Iraq,” he said. “The forces there are to protect the Iraqi people but the Iraqi people aren't really feeling that's their role at the moment, and I think there will be some discussion on whether a more conciliatory approach can be taken.”

Close relationship’
It is also Blair’s own personal relationship with Bush that is causing some anxiety for members of his Labour party. The special relationship the rest of Blair’s government shared with President Clinton’s administration has been well documented. But they have never taken to Bush, who they regard as reckless and aggressive. 

“I think it’s a question of style,” said Anthony Howard, former Washington correspondent for the London Observer. 

“Bush has a very un-British approach to things. It’s a similar situation to the 60’s where Britain felt comfortable with Jack Kennedy but then ruffled by the gung-ho approach of Lyndon Johnson.”

Blair is known to enjoy these trips to Washington. It’s on the world stage he appears to perform best, and it is a stage he enjoys holding.

He has been warmly welcomed in the United States in the past, most noticeably when he was given a standing ovation to a joint session of the U.S. Congress last July.

Some political experts believe he enjoys the respite from the domestic agenda and finds comfort in the support he receives from within the Bush administration.

Both Blair and his Home Secretary David Blunkett for example, have come under heavy fire in the past two weeks over the government’s ability to deal with immigration in the U.K.  An issue which, before the outbreak in Fallujah, was headline news in the British newspapers. With Iraq now again foremost in his thoughts, it’s out of the frying pan and into the fire.

Blair joins Bush fresh from a family holiday and much-needed break in Bermuda; he will need all the rest he got.

It’s been a terrible month so far in Iraq for coalition forces. Shoulder to shoulder he and Bush must steer Iraq back onto the road to recovery in time for the handover of power this June, otherwise they could both be writing those memoirs sooner than they planned.