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Bush goes to Sea Island hoping to bridge gulf in transatlantic relations

Leaders of the US and its fractious allies gather here today for a summit at which President Bush will seek a blessing for his strategy in Iraq and try to repair the biggest rift in transatlantic relations in decades.

The annual G8 meeting, the central part of an intense month of diplomacy for Mr Bush, has arrived under mixed auspices. Prospects have been given a boost by the show of unity at last weekend's D-Day anniversary ceremonies, and by the likelihood of swift passage of a new American-British resolution at the United Nations. This will give a vital international imprimatur to the 30 June transfer of sovereignty in Iraq.

The once-ballyhooed initiative that was to have been the centrepiece of the three-day gathering, aimed at promoting democracy and free markets in the Islamic world, has, however, fizzled to near insignificance. Dubbed the Greater Middle East Initiative when it was launched last winter, the scheme ran into withering criticism from some Arab countries, who complained it was yet another instance of Western powers trying to impose their ways upon the Middle East.

It was hastily renamed the Broader Middle East and North Africa initiative, and several more contentious provisions dropped. The project has now been rechristened yet again, as Partnership for Progress and a Common Future between East and West, but even so divisions over its contents remain. Although the leaders of Turkey, Jordan and some smaller Arab states will attend the summit, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, arguably the key US allies in the region, have refused to attend the event.

And problems persist within the G8 itself. While they are unlikely to provoke an open clash, France and Russia are unhappy about parts of the scheme, even though its focus is now primarily economic.

Meanwhile, Washington's perceived favouritism towards Ariel Sharon in the Arab-Israeli conflict, not to mention the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal, has eroded much of what US credibility remained in the region, and its claim to be bringing civilised values. Security at the resort where the talks will be held, and at Savannah, where officials and the media will be based, is stifling. An exclusion area has been imposed around Sea Island, where coastguard vessels with machine guns patrol the coastal waters.

The sole access road is cut by roadblocks and guarded by black-uniformed secret service men. In Savannah itself, which is 80 miles to the north, sand-coloured Humvee military vehicles were yesterday patrolling the elegant antebellum streets and squares. If the UN deal sticks, it will augur well not just for the summit, but for Mr Bush's chances of turning the occasion into a plus for his troubled re-election campaign. The President will be able to present himself as a unifying, rather than divisive figure, with a credible Iraq exit strategy.

Tonight Mr Bush is holding a working dinner with the other leaders of the G8, from France, the US, Italy, Germany, Canada, Japan and Russia, to kick off proceedings. Apart from the various crises in the Middle East, the G8 leaders will also address weapons proliferation and surging oil prices, as well as Third World debt.

The summit will also produce a joint initiative to improve travel security, by sharing data on lost and stolen passports, and other means of making flights safer. But a project for a five-year $660m fund to help countries that join international peacekeeping ventures, was still uncertain, 24 hours before the summit began. France, Germany and Japan have doubts about the scheme.