(Reuters) - British Prime Minister Tony Blair faced growing pressure to distance himself from his ally the United States over the Middle East as he headed for talks with President Bush in Washington on Friday.
As he did during the Iraq war, Blair has sided squarely with Washington over the conflict between Israel and Lebanese Hizbollah guerrillas, putting himself at odds with Arab nations and European allies by refusing to call for an immediate ceasefire, reports Trend.
Blair has said he wants the killing to stop now but argues that a ceasefire will only work if conditions are first put in place to ensure both sides respect it.
His popularity already dented by his stance on Iraq, Blair's line has opened him to criticism at home that he is blindly following Washington and not doing enough to stop the deaths of civilians.
"I defy any person watching TV not to cry out loud for an immediate ceasefire in Lebanon. Yet our government and that of the U.S. have weasel-worded their way through this tragedy," Stephen Wall, a former foreign policy adviser to Blair, wrote in this week's New Statesman magazine.
Blair's government had "too readily lost sight of the fact that Britain's interests, and those of the U.S., are not identical," Wall wrote.
Aid agencies Oxfam and Save the Children were among 14 organizations that took out an advertisement in British newspapers on Friday condemning Blair's policy and urging him to use his meeting with Bush to publicly call for an immediate halt to the fighting which Lebanon says has killed up to 600 people.
A spokesman for Blair said he and Bush "will be discussing the basic elements for a plan to get to a ceasefire."
British officials played down reports that Blair would press Bush to support "as a matter of urgency" a ceasefire in Lebanon as part of a U.N. Security Council resolution next week.
Foreign ministers from the United States, Europe and the Middle East, meeting in Rome on Wednesday, agreed on the need for an international military force with a U.N. mandate but took no concrete steps to halt the fighting.
Blair once confidently strode the international stage, but his prestige has taken a knock over the Middle East fighting.
In power for nine years, he has pledged not to stand for a fourth term and his influence at home is waning as members of his own Labor party clamor for him to set a date to step down.
British newspapers mocked Blair as a U.S. poodle last week when he suggested, in an off-the-cuff chat with Bush at a summit that was accidentally broadcast, that he visit the Middle East to try to stop the fighting.
Bush sent his Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
Blair has pinned his hopes on a peace plan that would include an end to fighting, the return of captured Israeli soldiers and an international force that would act as a "buffer" between Israel and Hizbollah.
Britain, with military commitments in Afghanistan and Iraq, has no plans to contribute to the force.
Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett said on Wednesday she had complained to the United States over its use of a British airport to ferry bombs to Israel. The United States denied it had broken British air transport procedures.
After Washington, Blair will make the first visit to California by a serving British prime minister to highlight British commercial interests in the state.