Withdraw now, Bush and Blair tell Israelis

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Britain and the US yesterday demanded that Israel should withdraw "without delay" from Palestinian cities and towns in the West Bank amid the worst bloodshed in more than a week.

In the Jenin refugee camp, where up to 30 Palestinians were reported dead, there were claims that militants were handing out explosives and grenades, and urging residents to make suicide attacks on Israeli soldiers. Heavy fighting was also reported in Nablus, as Israeli forces ran into strong resistance.

Defying earlier calls from the US to withdraw, Israel was seeking to press home its campaign to root out Palestinian militancy. But at a press conference with Tony Blair at a school near his Texas ranch last night, George Bush made his impatience clear. He said: "We agreed that Israel should halt its incursions in the Palestinian-controlled areas and begin to withdraw ­ without delay ­ from those cities it has recently occupied.

"I expect Israel to heed my advice and I expect the Palestinians to [condemn] terrorism." Asked what he would do if Israel ignored his demand, President Bush said: "I don't expect them to ignore [me]. I expect them to heed the call from the US ... and from the leadership of Great Britain."

The violence in the Middle East overshadowed what was originally expected to be the dominant topic of the summit: the US-led war on terrorism and specifically the campaign against Saddam Hussein. The two leaders said much of their discussion had focussed on trying to establish a peaceful settlement in the Holy Land ­ both men saying they supported a secure and recognised Israel as well as an autonomous Palestinian state ­ but the spectre of Iraq was never far away.

Mr Bush repeated his administration's policy to remove Saddam Hussein. Mr Blair was slightly more circumspect. He said: "Any sensible person looking at the situation and asking the question whether the region, whether the world and not least the ordinary Iraqi people, would be better off without ... Saddam Hussein, the only answer is 'yes'. How we approach this is a matter for discussion, for considering the options. Doing nothing is not an option. That the threat exists and that we have to deal with it, seems to me a matter of common sense."

Mr Blair will return to the subject in a speech today. He is expected to say: "Leaving Iraq to develop weapons of mass destruction in flagrant breach of no less then nine UN Security Council resolutions while [Saddam] refuses to allow weapons inspectors back in to do their work properly is not an option."

Officials travelling with the Prime Minister emphasised that the inspectors must be allowed to carry out their duties "properly". Mr Blair is expected to highlight the lessons the world should learn from the 11 September attacks on the United States.

He is also expected to remind America that its past isolationist foreign policy is "out of date''. Welcoming President Bush's repeated calls for Israel to withdraw its troops from Palestinian territories, Mr Blair will say, nevertheless, that taking action is the pragmatic option.

Mr Blair's remarks are bound to increase tension among sceptics in his Cabinet and infuriate more than 120 Labour MPs who oppose action against Iraq. They will also give further ammunition to critics who accuse Mr Blair of acting as Mr Bush's "poodle''. Nevertheless, the Prime Minister is expected to emphasise his resolve to back Mr Bush, warning there is "a real danger that we forget the lessons of 11 September".