British prime minister to discuss Iraq options with Bush

(AFP) - Prime Minister Tony Blair travels to Washington on Wednesday for talks with US President George W. Bush, just as an eagerly-awaited report on options for violence-scarred Iraq is published.

Blair, Bush's main ally in the Iraq conflict, will meet with the president at the White House on Thursday during a flying visit that is likely to be dominated by release of the Iraq Study Group's findings, reports Trend.

The West's simmering nuclear stand-off with Iran and latest developments in the stalled Middle East peace process are also expected to be high on the agenda of the talks.

The Iraq group, co-chaired by former US secretary of state James Baker, is expected to urge direct US talks with Syria and Iran and endorse taking US troops out of combat in a gradual pull-back, according to leaks.

Its crunch report -- to be published Wednesday -- comes in the wake of US mid-term elections in which Bush's Republican Party lost control of Congress, triggering the resignation of Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

Blair's spokesman said it was a "happy coincidence" that Blair was travelling to Washington on the day the report is published.

He sought to downplay suggestions that the talks will be dominated by the report, refusing to be drawn on the subject beyond noting that Blair had spoken to the Baker committee about Iraq during its consultation period.

The "report is an independent report and therefore it's a matter for them (the Americans) to talk about," he said, adding: "The prime minister did give evidence last month and we briefed on the evidence at the time."

Both Blair and Bush have faced a growing wave of opposition and calls for a withdrawal of troops from Iraq, which US and British troops invaded in March 2003, overthrowing president Saddam Hussein.

Bush last week dismissed speculation that he was planning a pull-out. "This business about a graceful exit just simply has no realism to it whatsoever," he said after talks in Jordan with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.

But Blair's government -- which has some 7,100 troops in southern Iraq -- said recently it hopes to hand over control to Iraqi forces early next year, planning to have thousands of its troops out of the country by the end of 2007.

The British leader, who angered many of his European counterparts by backing Washington over the war in Iraq, will clearly need to coordinate any change of strategy now with Bush.

The Washington trip could also be an opportunity to try to influence US strategic thinking before any decisions are taken -- which critics accused Blair of failing to do three years ago.

Potential points of difference between the two men could centre on Syria and Iran: Blair recently offered Tehran a partnership, albeit on condition, while Bush still sees the Islamic state as part of an axis of evil.

Bush and Blair are both seen by critics as lame duck leaders: Blair has been forced to pledge to leave office next year, while Bush faces his last two years in the White House in constant battle with Democrats on Capitol Hill.

Blair will also hold talks with leading congressmen during his brief trip to Washington.

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