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Bush, Blair Prepare for New Talks On U.S. Role in Middle East Crisis

By Edwin Chen and Robin Wright
LOS ANGELES TIMES -- Crawford, texas

On the world stage, British Prime Minister Tony Blair stands without rival as President Bush’s head cheerleader -- to such an extent that critics deride him as “America’s poodle.” But Blair arrives here Friday for a weekend of consultations with Bush as a counselor with some tough advice to dispense.

His message: Forget about Iraq until the Middle East crisis and the war on terrorism in Afghanistan abate. Even then Blair is known to harbor doubts about the consequences of a campaign to oust Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

The talks between “George” and “Tony,” as they call one another, should be cordial, reflecting a mutual affinity and their many shared goals and preferences, right down to the same brand of toothpaste.

But Bush and Blair face no shortage of difficult subjects, quite aside from the Middle East and Afghanistan. That includes a further expansion of NATO and a trade dispute with Europe resulting from Bush’s recent imposition of tariffs on steel imports.

“I think you’re going to see a very wide-ranging series of discussions,” White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said at a news briefing Wednesday.

“The United States and Great Britain enjoy a very special relationship. ... And the two leaders enjoy spending time together and talking about these various topics,” he added.

On the Middle East, they agree on a common framework of action -- the implementation of a cease-fire plan devised by CIA Director George J. Tenet, followed by negotiations on a final political settlement as outlined by former Sen. George J. Mitchell.

But notwithstanding Bush’s announcement Thursday that he is dispatching Secretary of State Colin L. Powell to the Middle East, Blair may propose a British or European role in the search for peace in the region.