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Mideast edge to Bush-Blair talks


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LONDON, England -- Tony Blair was due in Washington Thursday evening for talks with President Bush, as the death of Yasser Arafat brought the British leader's calls to revive the Mideast peace process sharply into focus.

Although Iraq was set to be the main subject of the talks, before he left Britain Blair again called for fresh efforts to achieve a peace deal in the wake of Arafat's death.

Paying tribute to the Palestinian leader, Blair said the search for a settlement with the Israelis must be "reinvigorated" following Arafat's death.

"Obviously he was a huge icon for the Palestinian people. There is no doubt about that at all," he told British television.

"Whatever differences we had with him I think it is right to recognize that. I think the most important thing is to make sure we reinvigorate the peace process because there is misery for Palestinians, there is misery for Israelis who suffer terrorist activity," Blair said.

"And in the meantime we have got a situation where it is a huge source of discontent and problem within the world, so it is important we deal with it."

Blair is one of the first foreign leaders to visit Bush following his re-election, an indication of the strong ties the two men continue to share.

CNN European Political Editor Robin Oakley said one of the key questions of the visit is just how much of a payoff Bush will give Blair for his loyal support on Iraq and other issues. (Analysis)

Blair has already signaled what many are seeing as the test case for Bush's second-term intentions and Blair's ability to influence the president, Oakley said.

At this year's Labour Party conference in September, Blair declared: "The party knows the depth of my commitment to the Middle East peace process and shares my frustration at the lack of progress. ... After November I will make its revival a personal priority."

Blair consistently has said he believes the "road map" to peace remains the only way to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian question, welcoming Israel's decision to withdraw from Gaza as a first step on that road.

Bush and Blair are due to have talks and dinner Thursday night before further discussions Friday during the 24-hour visit.

The question of the succession to Arafat will inevitably feature in the discussions, with the U.S. consistently having said he was a block to lasting agreement.

Above all, the two leaders are certain to spend time assessing the military campaign to oust rebels from the Iraqi city of Falluja, and progress on Iraqi elections in January -- the first step towards introducing democracy to Iraq.

Environment

European campaigners also want Blair to urge Bush to sign up to moves to combat climate change, though that topic is unlikely to loom large in the talks.

Blair's aides told the UK's Press Association the prime minister will be seeking to prepare the ground for wringing an agreement on some sort of accord on the environment from Bush, to coincide with the UK presidency of the G8 group of leading industrialized democracies in the first half of next year.

Africa and the plight of the developing world, along with the emergence of new "tiger economies" such as India and their impact on world trade, will also be on the two leaders' agenda, the aides said.

Downing Street said the discussions will be informal and wide ranging.

"It will go wherever it goes," one aide told PA.

But those close to the prime minister are acutely aware that Blair's perceived closeness to Bush is seen as unpopular with British voters and controversial with his own backbenchers, PA says.

So the premier may use the occasion to redefine his relationship with Bush in a round of TV interviews for home consumption after the talks, the news agency said.


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