Last men standing: Blair heads to US for crucial talks with Bush

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The Independent Online

Tony Blair will be over the Atlantic today on his way to Washington as the Iraq review group chaired by the former US Secretary of State James Baker delivers its long-awaited report.

The Prime Minister is travelling in hope of reinforcing the central message by the Baker Commission that a radical change of strategy is needed on Iraq when he meets the US President George Bush tomorrow.

But some officials travelling with Mr Blair are privately doubtful about his chances of convincing Mr Bush to abandon the conviction of the neo-cons that Iran is part of an axis of evil that should be isolated.

Last night, the Prime Minister's grasp on his party was slipping as one of his staunchest supporters on the Iraq war, Ann Clwyd, was ousted as chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party and replaced in a ballot of Labour MPs by Tony Lloyd, a Labour dissident on Iraq.

The timing of Mr Blair's visit to Washington is said by Downing Street to be coincidental but his arrival at the White House within 24 hours of the Baker report may provide Mr Blair the leverage to try to rescue something from the chaos of Iraq before he leaves office. Mr Blair will also discuss the need for more troops in Afghanistan to continue the war on the Taliban. It is unlikely that any early withdrawal plans will come out of the meeting with Mr Bush.

Mr Blair's main hope is that he will be able to gain the support of the White House for a fresh attempt to revive the Middle East peace road-map.

Mr Blair, in his evidence to the Baker Commission, stressed the importance of treating Iraq as part of the wider Middle East problem, involvingIran and Syria. However, cabinet ministers do not share Mr Blair's continued faith in the "special relationship" with Mr Bush to deliver change in US strategy. "We think Bush will have problems in drawing Iran into the talks," said one cabinet source. "But we think this is the only way this is going to be sorted out."

Number 10 officials are making a distinction between Syria and Iran, which is privately accused by ministers for sponsoring insurgents in Basra who are mounting attacks on UK forces there. "They are Iran's stooges," said one minister.

Number 10 officials tried to play down pessimism from the assessment by the new US Defence Secretary, Robert Gates, that the coalition is not winning the war in Iraq. "We need to support the democratically elected government of Iraq and the wishes of millions of Iraqis who voted for a multi-ethnic unitary government for Iraq," said Mr Blair's spokesman.

Today, Mr Blair will meet senators to discuss tougher measures on climate change. After seeing Mr Bush tomorrow, he will meet congress leaders and the senate armed services and foreign relations committee.

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