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Bush: Ready for British protests

The Mall in London is festooned with British and U.S. flags this weekend, ahead of President Bush's state visit to the United Kingdom next week.
The Mall in London is festooned with British and U.S. flags this weekend, ahead of President Bush's state visit to the United Kingdom next week.

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LONDON (Reuters) -- President Bush said on Friday that he's ready for antiwar protests when he visits Britain next week and praised his "smart, trustworthy" friend, Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Thousands are expected to demonstrate against Bush, who will stay at Queen Elizabeth's London residence, Buckingham Palace, visit Blair's northern English constituency and talk to relatives of British soldiers killed in Iraq.

"I can understand people not liking war, if that's what they are there to protest," Bush told British reporters in a Washington interview.

"I fully understand not everybody is going to agree with the decisions I've made."

Blair's public ratings have plunged over the war in Iraq, which most Britons opposed. Mounting guerrilla resistance seven months after president Saddam Hussein's fall has raised fears of more British casualties beyond the 20 already killed in combat.

Bush said he would take the opportunity to explain his Iraq policy, which aimed to keep the United States secure and create around the world "free societies... which do not breed terror."

It was inconceivable the United States would pull out of Iraq or Afghanistan until it had achieved its aims of free and democratic societies, he said. Finding Saddam and al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden remained among the goals.

A poll of British voters this week showed 60 percent disapproved of Bush's handling of Iraq, and only 40 percent thought Blair's close ties with Bush were good for Britain. A new poll in the Daily Mirror on Friday said three out of four Britons believe Bush's "war on terror is making the world less safe."

Bush said he would meet the families of some British soldiers killed in Iraq and tell them the prayers of the American people and their president were with them.

"I will tell them that their loved ones did not die in vain. The actions we have taken will make the world more secure and the world more peaceful in the long run."

But family members of fallen British troops have been some of the war's most vocal critics. Robert Kelly, whose 18-year-old son Andrew died in Basra in May, told BBC radio he had not been invited to meet the president, and did not want to meet him.

"For these people to meet families, it is only for their own gain," he said. "What does George Bush care about our families and my family? He doesn't care."

Iraq a unique case

Bush went out of his way to compliment Blair, his closest international ally and, denied he slavishly followed Washington.

"I have never heard him complain about the polls or wring his hands. The relationship is a very good relationship because I admire him and I admire somebody who stands tough," he said.

"He's plenty independent. If he thought the policy...was wrong, he'd tell me," Bush said. "He's a smart, capable, trustworthy friend and we've got a lot to talk about."

That included Iraq, trade and commerce and fighting AIDS.

British government insiders have speculated Bush will reward Blair for his staunch support since the September 11 attacks.

One possibility would be an announcement in Britain that the United States will lift tariffs protecting its steel industry which were declared illegal by the World Trade Organization.

"I am listening, looking and we will decide at an appropriate time," Bush said.

Bush is due to visit Blair's constituency in the northern town of Sedgefield, and said he "can't wait" to get out of the "bubble" of the modern presidency.

"It's hard for a president to get out to the countryside," he added.



Copyright 2003 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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