Cracks appear between Bush and Blair over need for talks with Iran and Syria

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Indy Politics

Differences have emerged between Tony Blair and George Bush on strategy in the Middle East, even as the two leaders agreed that a major change of course was necessary in Iraq in the wake of the devastating critique delivered this week by a high-level bipartisan panel in Washington.

In a first sign of the intensified regional diplomatic drive urged by the Iraq Study Group (ISG), the Prime Minister will visit Israel and the Palestinian Territories - probably within the next 10 days or so - to try to break the logjam over the failure of the Palestinians to come up with a unity government to embark on new negotiations. The mission had the full support of the US, Mr Bush declared.

But at a joint press conference after a White House meeting yesterday, the President ruled out early talks with Iran and Syria, as the ISG strongly recommended and on which Britain seems much keener. Though he held the door open to their inclusion in a regional support group to tackle the Iraq crisis, this could only happen if the two neighbours "faced their responsibilities" and ceased funding terrorists and threw their weight behind Iraq's fragile democracy.

But the direct talks with Tehran seen by some experts as an essential part of a new US strategy remain out of the question, Mr Bush stressed, until the regime verifiably suspended uranium enrichment. British officials later refused to make such a connection, pointing to the full diplomatic relations that exist between London and Tehran.

In the case of Syria - recently visited by Mr Blair's top foreign policy adviser - Mr Bush was equally uncompromising. Any serious discussions between Washington and Damascus depended on Syria not fomenting terrorism against Iraq and ceasing its meddling in Lebanon, he said.

In general Mr Blair sounded distinctly more enthusiastic about the report, welcoming the "strong way forward" it set out. But the President stressed repeatedly that while it was "important," the ISG document was just one among several studies being prepared here, by the State Department, the Pentagon and the National Security Council. "I don't think Jim Baker and Lee Hamilton [the two co-chairmen of the ISG] expect us to accept every recommendation," he said. Mr Baker has admitted as much. But in testimony on Capitol Hill yesterday, the former secretary of state under the first President Bush insisted that "this is probably the only bipartisan report he's going to get." It was vital, he said, "not to treat it like a fruit salad," taking a bit here and a bit there.

Only when he has received and digested their recommendations will Mr Bush announce his new strategy in a major speech, within the next few weeks. But it appeared unlikely yesterday that he would meet the ISG's request for the launch of a new regional diplomatic initiative before the new year.

Yesterday's meeting was a sombre occasion, the first at which the two architects of the war had to confront, head on and in public together, the recent slide towards anarchy in Iraq. A tired-looking Mr Bush acknowledged that the situation was "bad" and "very tough," and that the task ahead was "daunting." But, he warned, the stakes could not be higher. A terrorist-dominated Middle East, he said, represented "an unprecedented threat to civilisation". As unwilling as ever to admit error, he described America's involvement in Iraq as "a noble mission". Unlike the Prime Minister, he spoke explicitly of "victory," insisting that it was "important for the entire world" that the US and Britain prevailed.

The two countries were facing "a difficult moment" in Iraq. But Mr Bush noted that yesterday was the 65th anniversary of Japan's attack on Pearl Harbour, the event that propelled the US into the Second World War, in which Britain and the US had fought side by side. They had faced difficult moments then but had prevailed, just as they would in this conflict.

But differences in emphasis were evident. Mr Bush seemed only half-heartedly to accept the link between the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the crises in Lebanon and Iraq, all of which involve a clash between moderation and extremism, as the Prime Minister believes.

Meanwhile, Mr Blair could be facing a tough sell on his forthcoming trip. The Palestinians have yet to form a unity government between Hamas and Fatah in which the former unconditionally accepts Israel's right to exist. For his part, the Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, has rejected any link between Iraq and his own country's "controversies" with the Palestinians, and ruled out an early restart to talks with Syria.

How the Bush/Blair relationship unfolded

February 2001

Tony Blair and George Bush hold their first face-to-face talks at Camp David. Blair is determined to preserve Britain's much-vaunted special relationship.

Summit score: Bush 1, Blair 1.

What happened next: Cordial relations cemented.

September 2001

Mr Blair is first out of the traps, flying to Washington to stand 'shoulder to shoulder' with Bush after the 9/11 attacks. In public, Blair's response looks more assured. In private, he urges Bush not to be hasty.

Summit score: Bush 0, Blair 1.

What happened next: The war in Afghanistan.

April 2002

At a crucial summit in Texas, Blair gives Bush a private pledge that Britain will back his moves to oust Saddam Hussein. They say nothing in public.

Summit score: Bush 4, Blair 0.

What happened next: The long march to war 11 months later begins.

July 2003

After an apparently successful war, the PM is greeted as a hero when he addresses the US Congress. He urges the US to avoid isolationism.

Summit score: Bush 1, Blair 2.

What happened next: En route from Washington to Tokyo he is told that the government scientist David Kelly had disappeared.

November 2004

In the US, Blair wins a public pledge that Bush will expend his 'capital' on breaking the deadlock in the Israel-Palestinian peace process. Bush says a Palestinian state could be created within four years.

Summit score: Bush 0, Blair 1.

What happened next: Not much, to Mr Blair's frustration (again).

May 2006

The leaders acknowledge that the problems in Iraq have lasted much longer than they anticipated but vow to stay the course.

Summit score: Bush O, Blair 0.

What happened next: The insurgency continues.