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Bush, Blair Grapple With Tough Issues

Bush, Blair Grapple With Tough Issues

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WASHINGTON (AP) -- President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair are grappling with three of the world's toughest conflicts in Bush's 25-hour visit to Belfast, discussing war and rebuilding in Iraq while trying to revive peace efforts in Northern Ireland and the Middle East.

Bush departed Washington early Monday en route to Belfast for a summit meant primarily to review war progress and to iron out differences about how Iraq will be rebuilt and governed when hostilities end.

The reconstruction question has divided the president's advisers and the United States and Britain. Blair wants deeper U.N. involvement in postwar Iraq than Bush, who seeks a transitional governing authority consisting of Iraqi exiles and people living in the country now.

A U.S.-led coalition will likely run the country for more than six months until a new Iraqi government is in place, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz said Sunday.

An interim government administered by the United Nations is "not a model we want to follow, of a sort of permanent international administration," he said.

The Bush-Blair meeting is the leaders' third face-to-face session in just over three weeks. They met in the Azores on March 16, along with Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar. Bush and Blair held private talks at the Camp David, Md., presidential retreat March 27.

By agreeing to meet Blair in Belfast, Bush is taking the boldest step of his presidency into the decades-old conflict in Northern Ireland, and adding a set of issues that complicates his trip.

Former President Clinton made three trips to Northern Ireland, the most of any U.S. president. Clinton's envoy, former Sen. George Mitchell, led the Belfast negotiations that produced the British province's Good Friday peace accord of 1998. That pact sought to end three decades of sectarian conflict in the British territory that saw more than 3,600 killings.

Bush has shown less interest, delegating the business of following Belfast developments to a senior State Department official, Richard Haass.

Blair, a stalwart ally of Bush in the Iraq war, hopes presidential backing will strengthen his hand when he publishes his government's new Northern Ireland plans by Thursday, the fifth anniversary of the Good Friday pact.

A senior administration official said Bush's very presence in Northern Ireland was meant to signal Bush's backing for Blair's blueprint.

Bush and Blair drew Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern into their talks on Northern Ireland, inviting him to a lunch on Tuesday afternoon.

The location of the summit, Hillsborough Castle outside Belfast, shields Bush and Blair from the kind of mass anti-war protests that have engulfed London and other European cities. Still, members of Sinn Fein, the political arm of the Irish Republican Army, planned to demonstrate against the war outside the castle.

Northern Ireland's Social Democratic and Labor Party criticized the idea of mixing Iraq war planning with Northern Ireland peacemaking.

"I cannot disguise my personal unhappiness at this, given my own opposition to this war and my concern for the integrity of our own peace process," said Mark Durkan, leader of the moderate, mainly Roman Catholic party.

Bush and Blair also are trying to breathe new life into the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians. Blair has previously held up the progress in Northern Ireland in recent years as a model to inspire peace in the Middle East.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said there are no plans to release Bush's long-sought "road map" for Middle East peace during the meeting.

The United States, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia -- which make up the quartet of Mideast mediators -- have presented Israel and the Palestinians with several drafts. Both sides have made changes, but British and U.S. officials said recently that the final draft would have to be accepted as is.

The United States and Britain have said the guidelines would be unveiled after the new Palestinian prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, and his Cabinet are sworn in, probably sometime this month.

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

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