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Blair's Africa plea to Bush

By Robin Oakley
CNN European Political Editor

Great Britain
White House

LONDON, England (CNN) -- Tony Blair, this year's chairman of the G8 group of industrialized nations, flies to Washington Monday with a plea to U.S. President George W. Bush to back him in an ambitious scheme to double aid to Africa.

The British prime minister wants to forgive debts and root out poverty and disease. U.S. officials have so far been giving British plans the cold shoulder, but UK lawmakers say its time for Bush to lend a hand to the man who's backed him all the way on Iraq.

For Blair, the price of supporting Bush on Iraq has been a heavy one: Britain's biggest ever street demonstrations, a loss of public trust and a shredding of his parliamentary majority from 161 to 67 in last month's elections.

Blair's lawmakers say that what irks them the most is that for the White House, it never seems to be payback time.

That isn't stopping Blair trying again in Washington this week. For years Britain's prime minister has had a mission, one he outlined in a memorable speech after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in America.

"The state of Africa is a scar on the conscience of the world, but if the world as a community focused on it we could heal it," Blair told his Labour Party that autumn.

As this year's chairman of the G8, Blair is reviving that ambition. He and his finance minister, Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown, are calling for a doubling of world aid to the poorest countries and a 100 percent forgiveness of their debts, especially in Africa.

"This is not a time for timidity," Brown said. "Nor is it a time to fear reaching too high. This year, the year of the U.N. special summit as well as the year of Britain's G8 presidency in Gleneagles, is our chance to help reverse the fortunes of a continent, and it is our opportunity to help transform the lives of millions."

South Africa's President Thabo Mbeki was at the White House last week underlining the message.

"We believe very strongly that the upcoming (G8) summit in Gleneagles in Scotland has the possibility to communicate a very strong positive message about movement on the African continent," Mbeki said.

Bush sounded welcoming, but there's a snag. U.S. officials have made clear the White House doesn't want to double aid to Africa. It doesn't want to forgive debts unless countries weed out corruption and improve their democracy. And it doesn't like the British plan for an international finance facility speeding up the flow of funds.

Blair is getting backing from other Europeans. But his visit to Washington is to urge the president not to spoil the party.

Blair's mission will in essence be the diplomatic equivalent of, "Buddy can you spare a dime?" And it's a question addressed, most British politicians reckon, to a man who owes him rather more than that.

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