Blair to press Bush for new strategy

British Prime Minister Tony Blair will use talks with United States President George W Bush during his visit to London next week to argue for a cautious shift of power within Iraq, concessions for the Britons held at Guantanamo Bay and reassurances for the Americans about Europe’s military intentions.

The Iraq initiative is designed to stem the mounting attacks on US forces by setting out a clear staging post for a full handover of power to Iraqis.

Britain acknowledges that the governing council of Iraq does not have sufficient political authority, although the United Kingdom’s International Development Secretary Hilary Benn insisted on Wednesday in the House of Commons in London that the council is gaining in confidence.

Blair’s aides are stressing that the British plan would not require the closing down of the 25-strong council or an earlier departure of British troops. Ann Clwyd, Blair’s human rights ambassador in Iraq, said the British were thinking instead of making the council the de facto interim government with respon-sibility for security being handed over directly to the Iraqis.

The prime minister will also use the talks to press for progress on the Guantanamo Bay prisoners, including an undertaking that detainees will be allowed to appeal to civilian courts.

The bulk of the talks with Bush will take place on November 20, and both sides want a credible new strategy on Iraq in place by then. The UK Foreign Office believes firmly that any disputes between the British and the Americans over Iraq strategy must be kept private.

Both British and US officials realise that they need a new route to an Iraqi takeover to be well mapped out before December 15, the United Nations-agreed deadline for the governing council to set out its plans for drawing up a constitution and a timetable for elections.

Britain has informally set a time-table of elections for next year, but the French and the Germans have been pressing for earlier interim staged deadlines by which progress towards full sovereignty can be measured. 

The danger of early elections, the British government has always warned, is that Shia radicals will dominate. Leaders of Iraq’s Shia majority are demanding direct elections to a constitutional convention, ensuring their dominance.

The UK’s Foreign Secretary Jack Straw told BBC Radio: “It could well be that we hand over power to the Iraqis more quickly than planned. However, we as the coalition have clear responsibilities for security in Iraq and we have to meet those responsibilities.”

Both Britain and the US have been frustrated by infighting on the council, which tries to embrace the wide range of religious, provincial and tribal thinking in Iraq.

Blair is not expected to make the Middle East peace process a priority with Bush, since the prime minister’s aides recognise that, in an election year, the president is unlikely to take further risks.

Another fractious issue that is likely to crop up during the two leaders’ talks will be the recent British support for a strengthened European Union defence capability.

Blair feels his proposals are now better understood in Washington after he gave a commitment that Britain will not back a separate EU military planning headquarters outside the remit of Nato.

He has also reassured the Americans that he will not let Nato lose its status as the primary source of territorial defence for western Europe. — Â

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