Report critical of US presence in Iraq tops the agenda

Tony Blair, UK President and George Bush, US President.
© Uknown.
Tony Blair, UK President and George Bush, US President. © Uknown.

US President George W Bush yesterday hosted British Prime Minister Tony Blair at the White House for talks that focused on a hard-hitting report that urged a strategic change in Iraq.

US President George W Bush yesterday hosted British Prime Minister Tony Blair at the White House for talks that focused on a hard-hitting report that urged a strategic change in Iraq.

Bush received the report on Wednesday from the Iraq Study Group, led by former US secretary of state James Baker.

It warns that even a sharp change of policy on Iraq may not avert a regional conflict.

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"not working", warns that the situation in Iraq is "grave and deteriorating" and calls for most US combat troops to be withdrawn by early 2008.

British media yesterday welcomed the report but were not convinced that Bush would actually adopt most of the committee's recommendations.

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.

There are currently about 135000 US soldiers and 7100 British soldiers serving in Iraq.

But there are disagreements between Bush and Blair on some world issues, including that over the link between the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and Iraq.

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

He said: "We have to pursue what I call a policy for the whole Middle East, and that means finding a solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict."

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

Does Bush agree that the two conflicts are closely linked?

White House spokesman Tony Snow said: "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."

Yesterday's meeting followed November 7 elections in which Bush's Republican Party lost control of Congress to the opposition Democrats, and the departures of defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld and UN ambassador John Bolton - both Iraq war hawks.

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

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

The paper quoted him as saying: "We typically ignore them and take no notice . It's a sad business."

It reported that Myers said he was "a little ashamed" of Bush's treatment of Blair

The US state department repudiated the statement and Blair yesterday rejected charges that he had subjugated Britain's foreign policy to Washington's.

He said: "We've got to decide this policy based on the British national interest." - Sapa-AFP

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