British Prime Minister arrives in Washington for talks with Bush

Iran Materials 7 December 2006 12:34 (UTC +04:00)

(AFP) - British Prime Minister Tony Blair arrived in Washington for talks with President George W. Bush, a spokesman for the British embassy here said.

Blair is to go to the White House early Thursday for a "breakfast meeting" with the US president, embassy spokesman PJ Johnstone told AFP. He said the prime minister issued no statement on his arrival in the United States, reports Trend.

Blair, Bush's closest ally in the Iraq war, and the US leader are to consider dwindling options on war-torn Iraq and discuss the stalled Middle East peace process.

Their meeting comes a day after a report by a top-level US commission, the Iraq Study Group, warned that even a sharp US policy shift in Iraq may not avert a regional conflagration.

"The two leaders have have a number of issues to discuss, including Iraq, the broader war on terror, the NATO commitment to Afghanistan, Sudan as well as free and fair trade," Bush's national security spokesman Gordon Johndroe said on the eve of Blair's visit.

US and British officials have steadfastly denied that the visit by Blair was timed to coincide with the release of the grim report by the Iraq Study Group that calls for a strategy overhaul.

White House officials said a frenetic schedule over the past month -- with the November US congressional elections, and Bush trips to Asia, Europe and the Middle East -- had stymied long-standing plans for the two to meet.

But the report -- which bluntly says Bush's Iraq policy is "not working," warns that the situation in Iraq is "grave and deteriorating" and calls for most US combat troops to be withdrawn by early 2008 -- was to dominate their roughly hour-long meeting.

The two leaders, shoulder-to-shoulder on the March 2003 invasion to topple Saddam Hussein, have opposed setting a timetable for pulling out US and British forces.

But they also had some disputes, notably on climate change with Bush's resistance to set limits on carbon-dioxide emissions, and tensions over how connected the Israeli-Palestinian peace process is to Iraq.

Blair on Wednesday said that strife-torn Iraq can yet be salvaged -- but as part of a wider Middle East strategy centered on the peace process.

"We have to pursue what I call a policy for the whole Middle East, and that means in particular and starting with finding a solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict, which I think is absolutely essential if we are to put that region on a stable footing."

That chimed with a key Iraq Study Group finding that the United States cannot achieve its goals in the Middle East unless it deals directly with the Arab-Israeli conflict and regional instability.

But asked whether Bush shared the view that the two conflicts were closely linked, White House spokesman Tony Snow replied: "I don't know."

"The commission thinks that there clearly is a link here, and that to the extent that you get resolution on the Palestinian-Israeli issue, that can only be helpful. The president believes that," he told reporters.

The meeting follows US mid-term elections in which Bush's Republican Party lost control of Congress, and comes after the departure of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and UN Ambassador John Bolton -- both Iraq war hawks.

It also came one week after a peculiar dispute inside the State Department triggered when a senior analyst said he was "ashamed" of the way Bush treated Blair and that US-British relations were "totally one-sided" in Washington's favor.

The Times of London quoted Kendall Myers, a foreign research analyst in the department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research, as saying that Britain's self-appointed role as a bridge between America and Europe was "disappearing before our eyes."

"We typically ignore them and take no notice. ... It's a sad business," Myers was quoted as saying, adding that he felt a "little ashamed" of Bush's treatment of Blair, according to the paper.

The US State Department flatly repudiated the statement, and Blair on Wednesday rejected charges that he had subjugated Britain's foreign policy to Washington's, saying: "We've got to decide this policy based on the British national interest."