PM and Bush meet to discuss timetable for Iraq withdrawal

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Tony Blair will fly to Washington today for talks with George Bush on how quickly the US and Britain can withdraw troops from Iraq. The visit, originally scheduled to take place before Easter, was delayed so that Mr Blair could go to Iraq first to show solidarity with its newly elected government.

Mr Bush's spokesman, Tony Snow, said the talks would cover "supporting the new Iraqi government, preventing Iran from acquiring the means to build nuclear weapons, bringing peace to the Middle East, ending the violence in Darfur and promoting free trade".

"The UK is a key ally and a resolute partner of the US in addressing these and other challenges," he added.

Mr Blair will also deliver the third in a series of major speeches on foreign policy before flying home late tomorrow. His speech in Georgetown will cover terrorism in Iraq, the root causes of international conflict, tackling poverty and promoting democracy in the Third World and the relationship between rich nations and institutions such as the UN and the International Monetary Fund.

Both leaders have seen their approval ratings slump aftercontinuing violence in Iraq, and Mr Blair, in particular, is eager for some visible sign that Iraq is making progress towards becoming a liberal democracy before he leaves office.

He will report back to President Bush from his meeting on Monday with Iraq's new Prime Minister, Nouri Maliki, who is also anxious for domestic reasons for foreign troops to withdraw quickly from some of Iraq's provinces.

The British view is that it may be possible to withdraw troops over the summer from provinces where there is minimal violence but they will have to stay close at hand in case the Iraqi security forces are unable to cope. Privately, British officials fear that it could be four years before the Iraqi army and police are in a position to take over responsibility in major trouble spots such as Baghdad and Basra.

Mr Blair hinted at the scale of the task yesterday when he claimed that if terrorism could be defeated in Iraq, it could be defeated "everywhere". He made the remark during Prime Minister's Questions, after a Labour MP, Tony Wright, suggested to him that Iraq is now in the grip of civil war.

Mr Blair said: "The people best able to give a sense of where Iraq is today and where it needs to be are now in government, elected by 12 million Iraqi votes.

"What they described to me is a situation where, for the first time, they have a genuine unity government - Sunni, Shia and Kurds sitting down working together - all of them representing parties that have stood in elections and been elected by the people of Iraq.

"None of them wanted the multi-national force to withdraw immediately. But all of them believe that the terrorism can be defeated by the united will of the Iraqi people."

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