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Blair, Bush to meet to discuss post-war Iraq

LONDON—Buoyed by strong polls at home, British Prime Minister Tony Blair arrives in the United States on Wednesday for talks with President Bush about war and about the tricky question of who will run post-war Iraq.

As combat rages in Iraq, a new diplomatic war is looming. France, Germany and Russia—countries that opposed the war and helped block a U.N. Security Council resolution endorsing it—want Iraq's reconstruction overseen by the United Nations. The United States wants to administer Iraq for an unspecified period of time while relying on the United Nations mainly to oversee humanitarian work.

Blair said Tuesday he favors a stronger role for the United Nations.

"I am clear that the United Nations must be centrally involved in dealing both with the human crisis and in helping Iraq rebuild once Saddam is gone," he said at a news briefing Tuesday.

The prime minister, who also will be meeting in New York with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, didn't minimize the severity of the continuing U.S.-Europe split.

The war, he said, "has exposed real tensions between America and Europe within the trans-Atlantic alliance and we have got to find a way afterwards of putting this back together again."

Although he is looking increasingly frayed and tired, the 49-year-old Blair has weathered early and heavy antiwar opposition at home to emerge with strong public support now that war has begun, with thousands of British troops joining the battle.

The latest poll, published in Tuesday's Guardian newspaper, reported a "big surge" of backing for Britain's involvement in military action. The poll by the ICM research organization said that a clear majority, 54 percent, now back military action, compared to 38 percent just a week ago.

Before the war began, members of Parliament in Blair's own Labor Party pounded him for backing Bush. But the new poll showed a strong majority of Labor supporters, 58 percent, are now on war's side.

This poll and several others swinging in Blair's favor are thought to illustrate British patriotism and support for U.K. troops now that they are engaged.

But it's questionable if "such a level of support can be sustained if there are serious military reverses and a constant daily diet of harrowing television pictures," the Guardian warned.

Recent reports and headlines in the British media have been gloomy: "Dark days await armies gathering for mother of all showdowns around Baghdad" (Tuesday's Independent); "Allied forces jolted by setbacks" (Monday's Financial Times), and "Desert Rats retreat under fire from Basra" (Tuesday's Times of London).

As Sky New war correspondent Emma Hurd said Tuesday of the rapid progress of allied troops across Iraq, "Let's face it, all they've taken is sand."

Tuesday night, there were reports that two more British soldiers had died in a friendly fire incident; on Sunday, a mistakenly fired U.S. Patriot missile killed two British fighter pilots. At least 14 British soldiers have died in accidents.

But strategically, Blair stressed Tuesday, the war is proceeding as planned.

"In the first five days since military action began, a huge amount has already been achieved," he said. "... In 1991 there were five weeks of bombing before ground troops went in. By yesterday we had covered twice as much ground in five days as was covered in the whole of the last conflict."

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A U.N. resolution on the post-war reconstruction and administration of Iraq is considered necessary to allow the European Union and other nations to contribute to the effort.

Several U.N. Security Council members, led by France, are leery of giving the United Nation's seal of approval to an American-British occupation of Iraq. France's President Jacques Chirac has said France "will not accept a resolution tending to legitimize the military intervention and giving the American and British belligerents powers over the administration of Iraq."

Bush national security adviser Condoleezza Rice met Annan at the United Nations on Tuesday to lay out U.S. plans to administer post-war Iraq. She told Annan that the Bush administration wants "to return sovereignty to the Iraqi people as soon as possible," said a U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

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(Knight Ridder reporter Warren P. Strobel contributed to this article.)

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(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Tony Blair

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