Belfast, April 7 (Reuters): War allies George W. Bush and Tony Blair flew into Northern Ireland today to try to bridge transatlantic differences over post-conflict Iraq and to assess their troops’ gains on the battlefield.
The US President’s first visit to Belfast was a political payback for the British Prime Minister, who has stood by him throughout the Iraq crisis and flown twice across the Atlantic for war councils this year.
Blair was expected to use their third meeting in a month to press an apparently reluctant Bush to back a leading role for the UN after the conflict.
London wants the involvement of the UN to placate anti-war countries like France and Germany, and to appease many Britons who are sceptical of US motives in Iraq.
In an ambitious agenda, Bush and Blair were also to discuss the stalled West Asia and Northern Irish peace processes.
As both arrived at late afternoon in Belfast, where hoax bomb scares brought chaos to roads and airports, officials spelt out their positions on post-war Iraq.
Some fear that issue could be as divisive as the abortive attempt to win a second UN resolution on war.
“It is absolutely clear we want to see UN authority for the operations there in exactly the way we did in operations in Afghanistan,” British defence secretary Geoff Hoon said.
But US officials have ruled out a leading political role for the UN, saying Washington and its allies have earned the right to call the shots by giving “life and blood”. They oppose the idea of the UN running an interim government in Iraq as it has in Kosovo, East Timor and Afghanistan.
US national security council spokesman Sean McCormack said Bush still stood, however, behind a statement issued with Blair in the Azores on the eve of war committing Washington to seeking new UN Security Council resolutions on Iraq.
They included resolutions to affirm Iraq’s territorial integrity, ensure rapid delivery of humanitarian relief, and endorse an “appropriate post-conflict administration”.
Speaking to reporters in Belfast, McCormack said Bush would use the visit to “lend support” to the peace plan set out by Blair and Irish leader Bertie Ahern for Northern Ireland. Bush would shortly release a so called roadmap for ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but the next step was confirmation of a new Palestinian Prime Minister, he said.
Other US officials told reporters that Bush and Blair had already agreed on the need for an interim Iraqi authority, but had yet to decide whether it should be launched in the south before President Saddam Hussein can be toppled in Baghdad. “It may be an attractive option,” one said.
Bush has sought to assure Blair the Americans’ concept is of an interim authority not made up solely of Iraqi exiles, the White House said