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Bush, Blair to Hold War Summit

Bush, Blair to Hold War Summit

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WASHINGTON (AP) -- With their troops overtaking Iraq, President Bush and wartime ally Tony Blair plan to meet in Northern Ireland next week to discuss the battle against Saddam Hussein's forces, White House officials said Friday.

The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the meeting near Belfast on Monday and Tuesday also will focus on efforts to bring peace to Northern Ireland and the Middle East.

It will be their third face-to-face talk in just over three weeks. The leaders met in the Azores on March 16, along with Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, to announce the end of their diplomatic campaign. Bush and Blair held private talks at the Camp David, Md., presidential retreat March 27, more than a week after the war began.

Their latest summit, held in the heart of the historic Northern Ireland conflict, comes amid progress by the U.S.-British coalition against Saddam's regime.

Thousands of frightened residents fled Baghdad on Friday and U.S. troops seized control of the capital's airport. Bush and his foreign policy team were turning to weighty questions about how to transform Iraq into a democracy, an issue certain to come up at their meeting.

White House officials said Bush hopes the visit will help the Northern Ireland peace process at a pivotal time.

The British and Irish governments have been pressing local parties for months to make a new round of concessions designed to keep Northern Ireland's 1998 peace accord moving forward.

The pact's key accomplishment -- a joint Catholic-Protestant administration for the British territory -- fell apart last October after police uncovered evidence that the Irish Republican Army was running a spying operation from inside the heart of the administration. The scandal stoked Protestant opposition to continuing to work with Catholic hard-liners from Sinn Fein, the IRA-linked party.

A Bush visit now would be designed to maximize political pressure on all sides -- but particularly Sinn Fein and the major Protestant party, the Ulster Unionists -- to swallow unpalatable new compromises for the sake of wider peace.

The British and Irish prime ministers, Blair and Bertie Ahern, had planned to be in Northern Ireland around April 10 to unveil and being selling their best-guess formula for reviving the power-sharing government.

Negotiations to date suggest the emerging deal would require the IRA to resume disarmament and to issue a statement unambiguously renouncing all forms of violence.

All other parties are also pressing Sinn Fein to accept a new system of political penalties that, in effect, could allow Sinn Fein to be expelled from the administration if the IRA is linked to further activities at odds with its 1997 cease-fire.

During previous critical junctures of Northern Ireland peacemaking, Blair and Ahern could count on hands-on involvement from then-President Bill Clinton, who made an unprecedented three trips to Northern Ireland when he was in power.

Bush, by contrast, has taken a hands-off role, delegating the business of following Belfast developments to a senior State Department official, Richard Haas.

On the Middle East, Bush promised at Blair's behest to release his long-sought formula for peace once a new Palestinian prime minister is confirmed. The British prime minister has urged Bush to keep focus on the Middle East in an effort to temper criticism that the Iraqi conflict will inflame the Arab world.

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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