Prime Minister honoured for war support with rare invitation to address Congress

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Indy Politics

Tony Blair is to fly to Washington to hold talks with President George Bush on the deteriorating position in Iraq and the faltering Middle East road-map.

Mr Blair has also been invited to make a rare address to the joint houses of Congress, seen as an honour bestowed on him for his support in the war to oust Saddam Hussein.

Amid worsening security in Iraq and a growing number of attacks on British and American soldiers trying to bring about law and order, Mr Bush and Mr Blair will meet next month to discuss the options available, such as increasing the number of troops in the region. The pair are also expected to discuss the US-led plan to bring peace to the Middle East, the so-called road-map that foresees a separate Palestinian state by 2005 and the dismantling of Jewish settlements in Palestinian territories. "They will be discussing the usual hot topics," said a source.

The invitation to speak to a joint session of the House and Senate on 17 July was made by the Republican Dennis Hastert, Speaker of the House of Representatives. A spokesman for Mr Hastert said: "We don't have these [joint sessions] very often. It would be done to honour Mr Blair for his leadership and support during the war in Iraq."

Mr Blair would become the fourth British Prime Minister, after Winston Churchill, Clement Attlee and Margaret Thatcher, to address both houses. The Queen made such an address in 1991, the only time a British monarch has done so.

The invitation to speak came after the decision announced earlier this week to award Mr Blair the Congressional Gold Medal, making him the first British leader to receive it since Congress's most prestigious award was made posthumously to Churchill in 1969.

The resolution to award it said Mr Blair had "clearly demonstrated, during a very trying and historic time for our two countries, that he is a staunch and steadfast ally of the United States".

Mr Blair's meeting with Mr Bush was arranged amid growing concern over the fraught atmosphere in Iraq. On Tuesday six British soldiers were killed in an ambush near the southern city of Amara.

The leaders are also likely to discuss the failure to uncover any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq - an issue on which the Government has been forced on to the back foot.

The Republican Congressman Richard Baker, who supported the Congressional Medal award, said: "I understand that it may not be entirely helpful to Tony Blair politically at this point in time for the people of the UK to hear he is so loved by the United States."

Downing Street and the British embassy in Washington said they could not comment on Mr Blair's schedule.

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