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Blair Gets Ready for Bush Talks

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Tony Blair is due to have talks with George Bush in Washington, with the Middle East expected to top the agenda after the death of Yasser Arafat.

Mr Blair, who touched down at Andrews air force base on Thursday night, is the first international leader to meet the US president since his re-election.

The pair spent "face-to-face" time on Thursday, taking the unusual step of dining alone at the White House.

Mr Blair then returned to the British embassy.

National delusion?

Downing Street officials are hoping Mr Bush will give a "signal of intent" over the Middle East during the two-day meeting.

Former UK ambassador to the US Sir Christopher Meyer told BBC News Mr Blair is under pressure to return to the UK with "tangible evidence he has influence in this relationship".

"I'd be surprised if the president didn't say something that wasn't of comfort for Tony Blair and the British government. What exactly that is going to be is very hard to predict," he said.

Ex-foreign secretary Robin Cook meanwhile wrote in the Guardian newspaper that Mr Blair needed to set out a "new role with the Bush administration of candid friend rather than loyal chorus".

He added: "Downing Street is celebrating the special relationship at the very moment in history when we should be questioning whether it is not a national delusion."

Peace momentum

The Middle East peace process was always expected to top the talks agenda, even before the death of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

"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," Mr Blair told GMTV on Thursday.

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

Mr Blair believes momentum has been lost, partly because of the US elections.

But speaking from the prime minister's plane on Thursday, BBC political correspondent James Landale said aides were playing down expectations the trip would yield any detailed proposals.

Earlier, Mr Blair's official spokesman said: "The priority is to restore that momentum - it is important to get a signal of intent."

But background work had been continuing so it was not a case of starting with a "blank page", he added.

Mr Bush on Wednesday said he wanted to see Israel and a Palestinian state existing peacefully together and he wanted to play a part in ensuring there was a chance that could happen.

War protests

The two leaders will also discuss progress in Iraq as the US-led assault on Falluja continues.

Away from Middle East issues, the future of the four British terror suspects still being held at Guantanamo Bay may also be on the agenda in Washington.

The UK says the men should receive a fair trial in the US or be returned to Britain.

British business leaders also want Mr Blair to raise the issue of American trade "protectionism".

And the prime minister is being urged to persuade the US to back the Kyoto agreement on tackling global warming.


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I hope they do the right thing.Alot of people distrust these two but you never know they could actually be doing good in the world (in the long run!!!!)

I like Bush,he reminds me of a simple but kind,angry uncle!

Blairs like my auntie.

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Leaders hail Mid-East peace hope

US President George Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair have said "a new opportunity" has emerged to forge a lasting peace in the Middle East.

Speaking hours after Yasser Arafat was buried in Ramallah, Mr Bush pledged to work for an independent Palestinian state during his second four-year term.

Mr Bush described a Middle East peace as "in the interests of the world".

Mr Blair is the first foreign leader to meet Mr Bush since he won re-election to the White House last week.

In a joint press conference at the White House, Mr Bush also hailed recent elections in Afghanistan as "a standing rebuke to cynicism and extremism".

And both said the US-led military operations in Iraq were aimed at making sure that scheduled elections could take place in January.

'Great chance for peace'

Mr Bush offered his condolences to Palestinians mourning the death of their leader, but was quick to point out that a changing of the guard offered a new hope for peace.

"The months ahead offer a new opportunity toward a lasting peace," he said.

He added that the future of the Middle East is "two democratic states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace and security".

The president refused to commit himself to an international peace conference on the issue.

But he said he intends "to use the next four years to spend the [political] capital of the United States on such a state".

Mr Blair said the imminent election of a new Palestinian president offered a chance "to put the first marker down".

"If we want a viable Palestinian state, we want to make sure the political, the economic and the security infrastructure of that state is shaped and comes into being," he said.

The new Palestinian leadership will have to prove it can fight terror and work towards democratic reforms, President Bush said, offering to "mobilise the international community" to help the Palestinians if they renounce terror.

"We'll hold their feet to the fire to make sure that democracy prevails," President Bush added.

But the BBC's Justin Webb, in Washington, notes that President Bush said nothing that he cannot later walk away from if the Palestinians fail to show they are truly committed to peace.

Despite sounding optimistic, the president remains neither hostile nor committed to a peace process, our correspondent adds.

Democracy the key

On Iraq, the pair repeated their belief that insurgents were trying to destabilise the country and force January's elections to be postponed.

"We have to complete our mission in Iraq: make sure that Iraq is a stable and a democratic country," Mr Blair said.

The prime minister said he had "little doubt" that the US-led coalition would overcome opponents he described as "terrorists and insurgents, [and] supporters of Saddam Hussein".

"As those elections draw near, the desperation of the killers will grow and the violence could escalate," Mr Bush added.

"Success of democracy in Iraq will be a crushing blow to the forces of terror and the terrorists know it."

Transatlantic ties

The US will engage constructively with Europe over the next four years, Mr Bush said, in a message he has repeated since winning re-election.

"We are the pillars of the free world. We face the same threats and share the same belief in freedom and the rights of every individual."

He said he intended to visit Europe "as soon as possible" after his inauguration in January.

Mr Blair spoke of a "tremendous desire and willingness" among European nations to ensure the transatlantic alliance, strained over Iraq, regains its strength.

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Tony Blair and George Bush have pledged a renewed push for peace following the death of Yasser Arafat. 

The pair held a Washington summit as the PLO leader was buried in Ramallah on the West Bank amid chaotic scenes.

Mr Bush last night said there was a "great chance" for a Palestinian homeland following his death. 

The newly re-elected President even suggested it could be founded while he was still in the White House. 

But he made it clear progress depends on who is elected as the new Palestinian leader and ruled out an international conference for peace until it was clear progress would be made. 

With the Prime Minister looking on, Mr Bush also said US and UK troops could face even worse violence in Iraq over coming months. 

Mr Blair later said Mr Bush had offered the Palestinians a "perfectly fair deal". 

However, declarations from the White House summit fell short of what some, including many Labour MPs, had hoped for. 

Sir Menzies Campbell, Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman, said "warm words and fine sentiment" would not bring peace. 

Mr Blair was the first foreign leader to meet Mr Bush since his poll victory last week. 

With his close ties to the President a source of friction at home, the PM was facing pressure for progress on the Arab-Israeli conflict, pressure intensified by Mr Arafat's death yesterday. 

However with no international conference and no new US envoy to the Middle East the Mr Blair faced questions in TV interviews over what he had achieved. 

"Anyone who saw the press conference today would not think this was a President who was indifferent to the peace process," he said last night. 

Speaking from the White House, Mr Bush had said: "We have a great chance to establish a Palestinian state and I intend to use the next four years to expend the capital of the United States on such a state. 

"I believe it is in the interests of the world." 

He sent his sympathies to the Palestinian people but said Mr Arafat's death meant "a new opportunity towards a lasting peace". 

He said: "I look forward to working with a Palestinian leadership that is committed to fighting terror and committed to the cause of democratic reform. 

"We will also work with Israeli and Palestinian leaders to complete the disengagement plan from Gaza and part of the West Bank. 

"These steps, if successful, will lay the foundations for implementing the `Road Map' and then lead to final status negotiations." 

On Iraq, Mr Bush warned that the violence could get worse in the run-up to elections in January. 

"As those elections draw near, the desperation of the killers will grow and the violence could escalate," he said. 

The US President sought to reach out to Europe following the rifts over Iraq, saying they must remain close partners. 

Mr Bush welcomed the enlargement of the EU and vowed to deepen transatlantic ties in his second term, visiting Europe as soon as possible after his inauguration. 

On Iran, both he and Mr Blair said the whole international community was opposed to the country becoming a nuclear power. 

However, the Prime Minister did not say whether Britain would back US military action to prevent it.

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