Blair denies rift with US over Iraqi sovereignty

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Tony Blair denied yesterday that there was a rift between him and President George Bush over whether the interim Iraqi government would be able to veto military operations by coalition forces from the end of June.

Tony Blair denied yesterday that there was a rift between him and President George Bush over whether the interim Iraqi government would be able to veto military operations by coalition forces from the end of June.

The Prime Minister told MPs: "We are both absolutely agreed that there should be full sovereignty transferred to the Iraqi people, and the multi-national force should remain under American command." He admitted his words would disappoint Labour MPs hoping he would distance himself from the US President.

Some MPs detected a more conciliatory tone towards Washington than Mr Blair adopted at a press conference on Tuesday, when he stressed that the Iraqis would hold a veto over sensitive operations, such as the US assault on Fallujah. Later, Colin Powell, the US Secretary of State, appeared to contradict Mr Blair, saying that US forces would remain under US command and would "do what is necessary to protect themselves".

Mr Blair also has problems closer to home on how coalition forces will operate from 1 July. His promise to give the Iraqis a veto has the backing of the Foreign Office, but not the Ministry of Defence.

British military commanders are said to be backing General Powell, a former US forces chief of staff, and are worried that giving control to an Iraqi authority may lead to operations being delayed, security being compromised and soldiers put at risk. Senior officers are apprehensive that coalition forces could be manipulated in internecine Iraqi conflicts and alienated from sections of the community.

At the same time, British commanders are determined not to give up direct command to the Americans when, as expected, reinforcements deploy outside the zone currently controlled by the British.

Military chiefs want to remain under "tactical" American command, rather than "operational" command. The former allows forces of the two countries to support each other during emergencies and carry out joint operations. But it does not extend to day-to-day missions, with British forces having to automatically respond to American demands.

British officials insisted yesterday that the apparent split between London and Washington was media driven, and stressed that Mr Blair and General Powell were responding to "different questions" from journalists. Mr Blair was not trying to bounce President Bush into a more positive stance on the transfer of sovereignty, and was said to be confident that both men were "on the same page".

Another theory circulating at Westminster was that a "choreographed split" was agreed privately between London and Washington before being played out in public. This would allow Mr Blair to distance himself from President Bush without harming his "special relationship" with him and reducing Britain's influence in Iraq.

This analysis is tempting, but Downing Street insists it is wrong. It is true that Mr Blair is under pressure from Labour MPs and Michael Howard, the Tory leader, to put some light between himself and the US President. But Blair aides insist he will not abandon his "shoulder-to-shoulder" approach.

The slightly different tunes emerging in London and Washington probably reflect the two leaders' need to play to their domestic audiences.

One British minister conceded: "We are looking at this from two ends of the same telescope. Inevitably, the Prime Minister and President are addressing their own people. In America, handing control of US forces to someone else is a very sensitive issue. There are 135,000 US troops [in Iraq] and 8,000 Brits."

According to Downing Street, the media is muddling how strategic and operational decisions will be taken. Mr Blair's official spokesman said two key words in the draft United Nations resolution tabled this week were "consent" and "co-ordination". The multinational force would stay in Iraq with the consent of the interim government, he said.

Strategic decisions would be taken by a mechanism such as a US-style national security council which would co-ordinate policy. "If you are at the wrong end of an RPG [rocket-propelled grenade], at present you don't have to phone up a committee to ask permission on how you respond," the spokesman said. "After 30 June, the same will be true. Operational control will remain at the level of local decision making. American commanders will be in charge of American troops, British commanders will be in charge of British troops."