Blair defies his critics to back US over Iraq

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The Independent US

Tony Blair is to rally to George Bush's side this week as the violent uprising in Iraq threatens to unleash a domestic backlash against both leaders.

Downing Street sought to play down indications that US military tactics in Iraq are causing dismay among senior ministers. The Prime Minister will instead offer the President unstinting support on his White House visit this Friday, his aides insisted last night.

However, they did not deny that Mr Blair, currently on holiday in Bermuda, is to make clear Britain will resist calls for additional troops to quell the disturbances. As military analysts suggest 100,000 more soldiers may be needed if the trouble spreads, ministers are keen to switch attention to the diplomatic front.

Mr Blair and Mr Bush are expected to step up attempts to win international support and a greater UN involvement in Iraq. The Prime Minister is to meet Kofi Annan, the UN Secretary-General, on Thursday to learn what roles, if any, the organisation is willing to take over from the coalition to enable the proposed handover of power to an Iraqi provisional government on 30 June.

The answer will hinge on the findings of Mr Annan's special envoy to Iraq, Lakhdar Brahimi, who has been talking with religious, political and human rights leaders in Baghdad since last Sunday. There is speculation Mr Brahimi will recommend the handover is postponed. MPs from across the political divide yesterday urged Mr Blair to abandon the 30 June deadline.

Oliver Letwin, the Shadow Chancellor, called for greater flexibility over the date, while Peter Kilfoyle, a leading Labour rebel, called for the handover to be delayed until a provisional government could be sure of internal support.

Mr Kilfoyle warned Mr Blair he faces tough questioning when he addresses Labour MPs at a private meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party a week tomorrow. "I would hope that he is contrite," said the Labour MP for Liverpool Walton. "There has to be an admission of the mistakes that were made."

Meanwhile, the prospects for Mr Bush's re-election this November darkened further. A Harris poll put his approval rating at 49 per cent, the lowest of his presidency.

Mr Bush sought to calm nerves with a radio address yesterday. He dismissed suggestions of delaying a transfer of sovereignty in Iraq. "This is precisely what our enemies want," he said.

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