Blair aides given top diplomatic posts

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Prime Minister Tony Blair's senior foreign policy adviser and spearhead of his mission to engage Syria and Iran in a quest for Middle East peace will become Britain's new ambassador to the United States, officials said yesterday.

Sir Nigel Sheinwald will move to Washington in the second half of next year. Analysts suggested the appointment would likely see Britain increase attempts to win White House support for a dialogue with Damascus and Tehran.

Sheinwald, who previously served as Britain's top European Union envoy, visited Syria last month urging the two countries to end support for terrorism and aid efforts to bring stability to neighboring Iraq.

His appointment and two others announced yesterday will also be read as the start of a diplomatic clear-out in London, as Blair rewards loyal staff before his 2007 departure from office.

Kim Darroch, the principal adviser on the European Union at Blair's Downing Street office, will be posted to the EU in Brussels, the Foreign Office said in a statement.

Foreign Office political director John Sawers will move to New York as Britain's next permanent representative to the United Nations, taking over next year from Sir Emyr Jones Parry, who is retiring.

Blair said in September he would step down as prime minister by the end of August next year. He has endorsed Treasury chief Gordon Brown as his successor.

Michael Cox, a British academic and author of "The New American Empire," said the appointments showed that both Blair and Brown would look to reconfigure Britain's relationship with the US

"Blair's people may well be thinking that the tide is turning in their direction in the U.S, there are people now making the case for engagement with Iran and Syria and for greater diplomacy. There are people who see the Middle East as an issue in its totality," Cox said.

"The appointment of Sir Nigel may be aimed at building on that trend, no doubt he can push the case even further."

Cox said Blair's visit to Washington last week appeared to have exposed divisions with US President George W. Bush over Middle East policy.

"Bush was clearly uncomfortable with some of the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group, whereas Blair was onboard with them - there seemed to be a divide," Cox said.

He said a government led by Brown was likely to remain closely allied to the US - but to seek to present a more independent position, in order to shake off the accusations of subservience which have dogged Blair's relationship with Bush.

In his role as Britain's finance head, Brown has been advised by a group of leading US policy makers, including Irwin Stelzer, director of economic policy at the Hudson Institute, and Democratic consultant Bob Shrum.

"Brown will want to show his independence, knowing it would be a popular move with his party and one that could win him votes in Britain. But he will remain closer to the US than to Europe," Cox said.

David Mepham, head of the international program at London think tank the Institute for Public Policy Research, said Brown was unlikely to share Blair's bond with Bush.

Brown "will want to build a close relationship with the president, but it is unlikely they will share the personal relationship Bush has with Blair," Mepham said. "However, it will be a key relationship in establishing himself on the world stage."

Mepham said that, like Blair, Brown would likely turn to a trusted circle of diplomats for advice on foreign policy.

"It isn't clear who those people will be, but I think there will be more continuity in foreign policy than people might think," Mepham said. "What we are likely to see is Brown being more pragmatic in Europe than he has been as finance chief, as he will need to win support among his counterparts."