Blair to support US over security crisis

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Indy Politics

Tony Blair flies to Washington today for a show of solidarity with President George Bush designed to scotch suggestions of a transatlantic split over Iraq.

A meeting this evening with Kofi Annan, the United Nations secretary general, will be followed tomorrow by a White House summit dominated by the security crisis in Iraq.

With coalition forces struggling to quell uprisings on several fronts, it promises to be their trickiest meeting yet. The Prime Minister and the President will spell out their joint resolve that sovereignty will be transferred to an interim Iraqi government on 30 June despite the upsurge in violence in the past fortnight.

In the two-day visit, Mr Blair will disappoint Labour critics who are pressing him to distance Britain from the alleged heavy-handed US tactics in Iraq.

Michael Rubin, a former Pentagon adviser who has just returned from working with the Coalition Authority in Baghdad, has said American and UK officials are at odds over how to administer the country. British military planners have also hinted at their disquiet over US methods of combat.

But Mr Blair, standing alongside the President, will insist that the two governments are united in their tactics and their aims. He will say that the coalition must not lose its nerve in the face of a concerted attempt to derail the planned handover of power. He will echo Mr Bush by asserting that the planned 30 June transfer of power must not be postponed. A Whitehall source said: "We are all working towards that date. It's a date we all want and the Iraqis want."

As more US troops prepare to head for Iraq, the UK government has said there are no plans to bolster its 8,500-strong force in and around the southern city of Basra. But reinforce-ments could be sent if the situation deteriorates.

Britain and the US recognise the need for a fresh UN resolution on Iraq, preferably before 30 June. In Mr Blair's talks with Mr Annan, he is likely to say that the UN should oversee elections in Iraq. British officials hope Mr Bush will support the idea, which could also prove attractive to countries opposed to the Iraq war, such as France, Germany and Russia.

A Downing Street spokes-man said the Washington talks were planned long before the outbreak of sustained violence. He added: "It is not a negotiation; it's about talking about how we address the challenges and serious issues. Both countries are working together to create a stable and prosperous Iraq."

There may be an awkward undercurrent in the Prime Minister's meeting with Mr Annan. It is the first time the men have met since Clare Short, the former cabinet minister, claimed that MI6 had spied on the secretary general last year.