Leaders face growing pressure for answers over Iraq

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The Independent US

Only three months ago, they were the smiling masters of the universe, liberators who had watched their armies roll up a supposedly formidable Middle Eastern foe as easily as a child swats away a fly. How different it will be when George Bush and Tony Blair meet in Washington today.

Reports of the end of a political love affair are premature. On Iraq, the President and the Prime Minister are locked together, and they know it. But was there ever a meeting more unhappily timed? The last person, surely, that Mr Blair would want to be seen with is the ally he is accused of following meekly into the increasingly costly and unhappy Iraq adventure. For his part, Mr Bush must share the podium with the leader of the country whose intelligence services, which are quoted as the authors of the uranium-from-Africa fantasy, have indirectly led him into the hottest water of his presidency.

But any reciprocal doubts will probably remain hidden. Their abilities to express themselves in public may differ, but the two men share above all a fierce and unquestioning self-belief in the rightness of their common cause.

And make no mistake, Americans love Mr Blair (though what with the row over the Guantanamo Bay prisoners and the difficulties faced by British companies in securing Iraq reconstruction contracts, the affection is less than obvious). When he addresses the assembled Senate and House today, the cheers will be genuine, grateful and deeply admiring.

Barely a day passes without a clip of Mr Blair on the news, defending himself before a raucous array of critics, giving at least as good as he gets. How much easier for Mr Bush, protected by Americans' innate respect for his office, and with a phalanx of proxies to defend him - the polished, oh-so- reasonable Secretary of State Colin Powell, the tenacious Condoleezza Rice, his national security adviser, and George Tenet, CIA chief and (thus far) willing fall-guy for the Niger fiasco. And just as well. This week a limp and stumbling Mr Bush managed to make the ludicrous claim that he only decided on war after he "gave Saddam Hussein a chance to allow the inspectors in and he wouldn't let them" (when of course it was Mr Bush who ordered the UN team out so he could launch his war).

But cracks are opening in the façade of the most monolithic, best-disciplined White House of modern times. Ms Rice and Mr Tenet point fingers at each other. The neo-con hawks have fallen silent. Even the bullying Donald Rumsfeld was subjected to what passes for a "grilling" on Capitol Hill about the current Iraq shambles, (though compared with what Mr Blair must handle in London it was tame). But for how much longer will able courtiers take the heat for the tongue-tied monarch? Will Mr Bush take the hit our Prime Minister has taken? The answer depends less on who-knew-what-and-when about the Niger forgeries than on events on the ground, in Iraq and beyond.

For the moment, the Bush machine rolls mightily along. Money, they say, is a politician's best friend. The President has raised more of it - $34m (£21m) for his re-election campaign in the past three months - than his nine declared Democratic rivals combined.

His approval rating remains a healthy 60 per cent or so. But the intelligence and organisational mess over Iraq has led to the first serious, sustained criticism of his competence on national security issues, since 11 September, his greatest political asset.

Yesterday another US soldier died in a "hostile incident" near Baghdad, a US military transport plane was shot at by insurgents using a surface-to-air missile as it landed in Baghdad, and in western Iraq the pro-American mayor of Hadithah was gunned down. This means that 33 US troops have been killed by Iraqis in the 10 weeks since Mr Bush landed on an aircraft carrier to proclaim an end to the "Battle of Iraq". Yesterday's incident brought to 147 the number of troops killed in combat in this war, equalling the total killed in combat in the 1991 Gulf War.

What was it in aid of, Americans increasingly wonder, asking themselves the question John Kerry, a leading Democratic candidate posed in public: "Are we safer today than we were on September 11?" For many the answer is, no.

Other Democratic candidates are piling in - not only Howard Dean, the former Vermont governor who opposed the war from the outset, but even strong advocates of it, such as Senator Joe Lieberman and Richard Gephardt, the former House majority leader.

They, and some Republicans, feel they were duped when the President sought congressional backing for war in October, on the basis of what now looks a grossly exaggerated case. Suddenly Mr Bush's credibility, so important for a self-styled "straight shooter", is under challenge. And suddenly, the White House no longer seems out of reach to Democrats in 2004.

To his discomfort, Mr Bush is learning that there is more to international affairs than brute force. Daily it grows clearer that if overstretched US troops are to get serious help in Iraq, Washington will have to cede more authority to the United Nations. Mr Bush is not a man who readily admits he was wrong. But, with no WMD and, manifestly, no threat from Saddam, reality is ever harder to avoid. As Groucho Marx asked: "Who are you going to believe - me, or your own two eyes?"

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