'Brainwashed' Blair losing battle to prove his influence

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Indy Politics

Tony Blair's "shoulder to shoulder" support for George Bush has been called into question again by claims that he was "brainwashed" by President Bush over plans to pull troops out of Iraq.

The Prime Minister returned yesterday from his seven-nation visit to the Middle East, apparently without achieving any significant breakthrough in the peace process. But British officials said that he had found a desire to make progress among Israeli and Palestinian leaders, and insisted that he had never expected to find a magic solution. They said his tour should be judged over the longer term rather than immediately.

The trip has been overshadowed by a growing perception that Mr Blair's relationship with President Bush is very much a "one-way street" in which Britain gets very little in return for his unwavering public backing for Washington. Even some Blairites are starting to question the Prime Minister's stance. They are appalled that President Bush has refused to honour his 2004 promise to expend "capital" on the Middle East peace process during his second term. "He doesn't cut Tony much slack," one Blair aide said yesterday.

For someone who is often described as a "lucky" politician, cabinet ministers believe that Mr Blair was extremely unlucky to have President Bush in the White House for the past six years.

Tareq al-Hashemi, the Iraqi Vice-President, claimed that Mr Blair was ready about three months ago to back a timetable for withdrawing allied forces from Iraq, but was "brainwashed" into changing his mind during his recent talks with President Bush in Washington. He told the Council on Foreign Relations in New York: "It is quite unfortunate that your President made a sort of blackmail out of Mr Blair."

Later he told the BBC: "I got the impression that he was much willing, and interested in fact, to raise this subject maybe for the first time with Mr Bush.

"I think he discovered that Mr Bush is still adamant that he's not going to declare some sort of timetable for withdrawal to avoid passing wrong messages to terrorism."

His claims echoed a report by the respected Chatham House think-tank which claimed that Mr Blair had enjoyed no significant influence over the Bush administration, despite the military, political and financial sacrifices that Britain had made to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Professor Victor Bulmer-Thomas, the outgoing director of Chatham House, said: "Blair has learnt the hard way that loyalty in international politics counts for nothing. And his successor will not make the same mistake of offering unconditional support for US initiatives in foreign policy at the expense of a more positive relationship with Europe."

But Mr Blair predicted that his successor would maintain his close relationship with America. "I think most people, when they are actually in a position of having to take the decisions, will come to the same view," he said. "Us having a strong relationship with America is one reason why, when I come and discuss the Israel/Palestine issue out in the Middle East, you are having a different kind of conversation, precisely because you have got a relationship with America."

Robert Tuttle, the US ambassador in London, described the Chatham House report as "puzzling and incorrect". He said: "Our relationship is the strongest of any two governments in the world and I think the world is a better place for that relationship."

Mr Tuttle added: "I think that the special relationship is very, very strong ... You have a very strong prime minister who made the commitment [in Iraq] on what he thought was best for the United Kingdom."