Blair to brief Bush on war efforts
By CNN European Political Editor Robin Oakley
LONDON, England (CNN) -- In addition to giving Concorde a public relations boost, British Prime Minister Tony Blair's latest visit to Washington will see a crucial stock-taking with U.S. President George W. Bush.
Blair plans to take the re-launched supersonic service to the United States on Wednesday to brief the Bush administration on his recent tour of the Middle East and his talks with European leaders at Downing Street on Sunday night.
After a month of military action, the two key war leaders meet in the knowledge there is growing pressure in Europe for at least a pause in the bombing, growing unease about civilian casualties in Afghanistan and growing public uncertainty about the clarity of the allies' war aims.
European political tensions were evident when Blair's war meeting on Sunday had to be expanded rapidly from the original guest list of German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, French President Jacques Chirac and French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin.
There had been ructions when the Big Three countries met for an "inner cabinet" on the war in advance of the last European Union summit in Ghent, Belgium, on October 19, with other countries complaining they had been snubbed.
To avoid similar problems, Blair invited his Spanish and Italian counterparts, Jose Maria Aznar and Silvio Berlusconi -- both of whom have offered military help to the anti-terror coalition -- as well as Wim Kok of the Netherlands and Belgium's Guy Verhofstadt, whose country holds the rotating EU presidency.
Despite issues over guest lists, Blair will be able to report progress to Washington on European efforts to inject new momentum into the Middle East peace process.
The EU has financial clout with the Palestinian Authority, to which it gives significant funding, and European heads of government will be pressing Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to arrest more terrorist suspects among Islamic militants in his territory.
Progress was also made at the London meeting towards agreeing on the potential shape of a post-Taliban government in Afghanistan.
But there are significant demands in Europe for more progress on the humanitarian efforts pledged by the anti-terrorist coalition at the outset. And some European countries would like to see the bombing stop for Ramadan to help maintain Muslim support for the anti-terror coalition.
Blair also will report to Washington on his difficult few days in the Middle East, when he visited Syria, Saudi Arabia, Israel and the Palestinian territory.
He returned largely empty-handed, having been forced to endure an anti-Israel diatribe from Syrian leader Bashar Assad. He also failed to secure Saudi backing for the bombing campaign and Israeli concessions on the Middle East peace process.
But Blair remains a vastly popular figure both with the American public and the Bush administration, which is grateful for his efforts to reach audiences it has no hope of reaching and is prepared to accept the occasional public relations failure in the process.
The two leaders are expected to discuss the next phase of the Afghanistan war operation -- the significant use of ground troops -- as well as how to recover from what many in the coalition are acknowledging has been a "wobbly week" in the propaganda war.
Above all, they will be looking for what else can be done to help boost the Middle East peace process. They remain determined that Osama bin Laden should not be allowed to "hijack" the Palestinian cause, and see that as a key to retaining Arab support.
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