| A member of the horse guards takes part in the daily ceremonial guard duty at Whitehall in London with the US flag in the background. (AFP)
London, Nov. 18 (Reuters): US President George W. Bush flew to London today to mount a defiant show of solidarity with British Prime Minister Tony Blair over the war in Iraq that has polarised the world.
The trip may have been planned to mark the two countries victory side-by-side in war in Iraq, but increasing attacks on their occupying forces have dulled any sense of celebration and massive street protests await Bush in London.
If Blair is a reluctant host, though, he has shown no sign of it, robustly defending his decision to defy other big European powers and support Bush’s war in Iraq. “The Prime Minister believes this is precisely the right time for President Bush to be visiting this country,” Blair’s spokesman said.
Organisers expect 100,000 anti-war demonstrators to cap their protest by toppling a giant statue of Bush in central London’s Trafalgar Square — an echo of the toppling of a statue of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein in April.
Among those applauding the protest was maverick London mayor Ken Livingstone who called Bush “the most dangerous man on the planet” and said that, even if asked, he would refuse to shake hands with the American leader.
Bush will be met by Prince Charles and stay at Buckingham Palace as the guest of Queen Elizabeth. But his guardians, fearing an al Qaida attack, have ruled out such traditional events as a royal horse-drawn carriage ride. British police are mounting a £5 million ($8.5 million) security clampdown, with weekend suicide bombings in Istanbul adding to the tensions.
British commentators say the visit will be uncomfortable for Blair — under fire at home over Iraq, especially within his own Left-leaning Labour Party.
But Blair has remained steadfast. In a key foreign affairs speech last week he said critics of the war should accept that Iraqis were better off without Saddam, and denounced what he called a “propaganda monster about America”.
Foreign secretary Jack Straw took up the theme today, writing in the Wall Street Journal of a “parody of America that almost demonises its power and its purpose and seeks to put the ills of the world at its door.”
Despite much talk in the media about how unpopular Bush is, a poll in the Left-leaning Guardian newspaper showed more British voters welcome the visit than reject it, and that 62 per cent think America “a force for good, not evil, in the world”.
Bush and Blair are expected to hammer out details of plans discussed last week for speeding up the transfer of sovereignty in Iraq to an interim government.
Blair will also hope to clinch a deal on British detainees at the US camp in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. There are now 10 Britons among more than 600 prisoners there, and London has complained about plans to try some under special military tribunals.
Blair will hope for a concession over trade, but a US official said before Bush’s arrival that no announcement on steel tariffs would be made during the visit.
Analysts had speculated that Bush might use the opportunity to announce a lifting of US tariffs on steel imports after losing a case at the World Trade Organisation.
Baghdad hit by blasts
A series of heavy explosions shook Baghdad after sunset today as US forces stepped up their assault against insurgents in the Iraqi capital.
“These explosions you are hearing are a continuation of the 1st Armored Division’s Operation Iron Hammer,” a spokesman for US forces said, offering no further details.
A rapid series of deep booms shook the southern part of the city in what sounded like tanks or armoured vehicles firing off rounds. Smoke could be seen rising from some buildings.
Explosions have regularly hit Baghdad after dark in recent weeks as anti-American fighters have detonated small bombs and lobbed mortars towards the headquarters of the US-led Coalition Provisional Authority in the heart of the city.