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Mideast to dominate Bush-Blair talks

Bush Blair
Blair and Bush wave to reporters before getting into the president's pickup truck and heading to his ranch.  

CRAWFORD, Texas (CNN) -- Wearing blue jeans and cowboy boots, President Bush welcomed British Prime Minister Tony Blair to his 1,600-acre ranch on Friday, casually kicking off a weekend expected to be dominated by the Middle East crisis.

Both leaders addressed the Israel-Palestinian situation before the two-day meeting.

"We will obviously be looking at ideas that can lead to a cease-fire, which is the essential precondition so that they get back into a process of political dialogue," Blair told reporters flying with him to Texas.

In an interview broadcast Friday on Britain's Granada Television, Bush said that he thinks Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat "hasn't earned" the U.S. administration's trust. But while insisting "there are others in the region who can lead," the president demurred when asked if the Palestinian people should look for another leader.

"Far be it from the American president to get to decide who leads what country," he said. "I'm just telling you since I've been the president, the man hadn't performed."

CNN's Garrick Utley reports on the close relationship between the U.S. and Britain (April 5)

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Blair is only the second world leader to come to the Bush ranch. The other, Russian President Vladimir Putin, visited Texas last fall.

The British leader will join Bush for his classified intelligence briefing Saturday before discussions begin in earnest on the Middle East and Iraq.

Iraq and the war against terror were initially expected to be the focus of the meeting when it was scheduled weeks ago. But the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including Secretary of State Colin Powell's visit to the region Sunday, has since taken precedence.

Blair has defended the Bush administration's Middle East policy, even as many other leaders have criticized Washington for not being more involved in the region. The president has also made efforts to keep Blair informed on developments, including his announcement of Powell's trip, call on Israeli forces to withdraw from Palestinian areas and pressure on Arafat.

The prime minister's spokesman told reporters that the leaders will also discuss options on what to do with Iraq. Some British lawmakers, as well as the Arab League and other leaders, have said they oppose a U.S. attack on Iraq.

In the interview with Granada, Bush said he has "no immediate plans" to attack Iraq, although he did say Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein "needs to go."

The president said he was confident an international coalition could be formed to pressure Hussein, and that England would stand by the United States.

"One thing Tony Blair does understand is that Saddam Hussein is a dangerous person, and I admire him for speaking the truth," Bush said.

Blair will be joined Saturday afternoon by his wife Cherie and also deliver a speech in Texas on Sunday. He will fly home Monday in time for the Queen Mother's funeral.




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