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Blair, Bush facing pressing business

British Prime Minister Tony Blair goes to the White House, reinforcing his status as President George W. Bush's closest ally.
PTI | By Agence France-Presse, Washington
UPDATED ON NOV 10, 2004 05:21 PM IST

British Prime Minister Tony Blair goes to the White House on Friday, reinforcing his status as President George W. Bush's closest ally, but with the Middle East and Iraq expected to dominate talks.

As Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat slips closer to death, Blair has said he wants to revive Middle East peace talks. The conflict in Iraq -- where US troops have launched a major offensive against the rebel city of Fallujah -- is a problem for both leaders.

Blair will be the first foreign leader allowed to enter White House since the US leader won a second term last week.

He arrives in Washington on Thursday night and the two will hold talks on Friday morning before a press conference at 11:30am.

Blair said that his talks with Bush would focus on reviving the Middle East peace process.

"I will do everything I can to make sure that this peace process becomes reinvigorated, and clearly that will be a significant part of the discussion I have later in the week," Blair told parliament.

Blair has made the Middle East peace process one of his foreign policy priorities. But he is aware of the problems looming with the end of the Arafat era. The Palestinian leader concentrated enormous power in his own hands.

"It's important to proceed with the measures that would allow elections in the Palestinian Authority to take place, the drafting of a new constitution," Blair said.

Blair's spokesman said international efforts to bring together Israelis and Palestinians had been held back by the US presidential election campaign.

Bush refused to meet Arafat throughout his first four-year term and the US administration cut contacts in early 2002. But US Secretary of State Colin Powell said Tuesday that the United States is ready to work with whoever replaces Arafat.

"We are ready to seize this opportunity aggressively," Powell said in an interview with the Financial Times. He called the Middle East "one of the biggest overhangs in our foreign policy."

Powell said the United States remains strongly committed to the two-state solution included in the US-inspired "roadmap" to Middle East peace.

Despite Blair's insistence, the US offensive in Fallujah and Iraq's elections in January are likely to have equal weight in the White House talks.

Britain has 8,500 troops in Iraq and 850 from the Black Watch regiment have been moved nearer to Baghdad to cover for US troops helping in the Fallujah battle. Four have been killed over the past week.

Though British troops are not involved in Fallujah, Blair has said the offensive would halt immediately if the insurgents there laid down their arms and committed themselves to the elections.

But Iraq could also play a key role in Blair's future as he is expected to face an election in mid-2005.

Public opposition to the Iraq war in Britain has hit a peak with just 31 percent of people -- down from 33 percent last month -- thinking it is the right thing, according to an opinion poll in the Times newspaper published Tuesday.

Fifty-seven percent considered the war wrong, four points higher than last month.

Blair is also seeking a greater role as a mediator between the United States and European nations such as France and Germany, which opposed the Iraq war.

Bush said after his election victory that he wanted to step up cooperation with the European Union and NATO in Iraq and the war on terror.

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