Was there a small chill in the space between the two leaders?

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The Independent Online

Maybe it was the imagination - but was there a small chill in the air yesterday between George Bush and his most faithful ally in the unfolding disaster that is Iraq?

In the now substantial history of joint press conferences between the US President and Tony Blair, there was no banter, no jokes about the Prime Minister's impending departure - no "Colgate moment" as their first meeting at Camp David, when it emerged that both of them used the same toothpaste.

Whether that remains the case was hard to tell, because there were precious few toothy grins on view - and even less to grin about.

This was a summit overshadowed by a book - the withering report by the Iraq Study Group on the situation in that wretched country. As usual, Blair was the more eloquent of the two. He was readier, too, to admit the dimensions of the mess, and to embrace the wise men's recommendations. And if Blair looked tired, Bush looked even wearier and even older, as if physically beaten down by the blizzard of criticism blowing about in the past few days.

Why, he was asked, had it taken him so long to say out loud that things were going so wrong in Iraq? "It's bad in Iraq - does that help?" he snapped in reply. "I understand it, how tough it is, I talk to the families of people who die, I understand what long deployments mean, I understand how hard our troops are working - and I want our people to understand that a failed policy will hurt generations of Americans."

At times, the old Bush (and Bushisms) resurfaced. "Victory" remained the goal, though "I'm disappointed by the pace of success." As for talks with Iran and Syria - "if people come to the table, they must be committed. If not, they shouldn't bother to show up."

Turning to al-Qa'ida (still blamed by the President for much of the carnage in Iraq) Mr Bush blamed its terrorists for some "effective and spectacular" bombings, "but we'll chase 'em down". As for the argument, long made by Mr Blair and strongly endorsed by the ISG, that progress on the Arab/Israeli dispute was essential for resolution of the problems in Iraq and elsewhere in the region, he seemed anything but convinced. "What you've got from us today is acceptance that you look at these issues together," the Prime Minister declared. The President listened without emotion, his expression locked in a quizzical, tight lipped semi-smile.

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