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Bush, Blair to discuss Ireland amid Iraqi war summit

BELFAST, Northern Ireland—A two-day summit this week between President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair will focus on the progress of the war in Iraq, humanitarian relief efforts and the United Nations' role in reconstructing the Persian Gulf state.

The visit to Northern Ireland, which has provoked a mix of reactions from political leaders and residents there, may also provide a critical boost to this province's stalled peace process.

One key part of the ambitious agenda for the Monday-Tuesday summit—the third between the two leaders in as many weeks, and the second since the Iraq war began—is hammering out differences over U.N. involvement in postwar Iraq.

Blair has sought a larger role for the deeply fractured international body, which is still smarting from last month's diplomatic failure on the eve of war. But Bush has been unwilling to commit to anything more than a short-term humanitarian role.

On Sunday, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, appearing on CBS' "Face the Nation," said the United Nations' central role following the war in Kosovo is "not a model we want to follow, of a sort of permanent international administration."

He said it would probably take at least six months for coalition forces to set up a new Iraqi government once they take full control of the country.

"I think the right goal is to move as quickly as we can to a government that is—if I could paraphrase Abraham Lincoln—of the Iraqis, by the Iraqis, for the Iraqis," he said. "Not to make them a colonial administration or a U.N. administration, or run in any way by foreigners."

The summit also will likely touch on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the promised release of a U.S. road map to a two-state Middle East peace.

Blair, facing domestic criticism of Britain's involvement in the war in Iraq, has pushed Bush to move forward on the road map as a way to achieve a broader regional peace. Bush has said the plan would be unveiled following the confirmation of Abu Mazen as Palestinian prime minister, which is expected in the next couple of weeks.

After two bilateral sessions at Hillsborough Castle outside Belfast, Bush and Blair will be joined Tuesday for trilateral talks with Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern. Following that meeting, the three leaders will meet with Northern Irish leaders.

It's understood without rancor here, though, that Northern Ireland's peace process will play second or even third fiddle to other topics in the summit.

"Well, first of all there's a lot of concern in Ireland that there is a war summit being held here; there's a lot of opposition to (the Iraq war) in Ireland," Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams said Sunday when asked about his hopes for the summit.

But "at the same time," he added, "Sinn Fein clearly recognizes the very positive role of this (Bush) administration and Irish Americans" in the peace process. "Let's hope the contradictions can be smoothed out."

Ulster Unionist Party leader David Trimble acknowledged on BBC Radio, "This is essentially a meeting on Iraq."

Even so, as an opinion piece in Sunday's Belfast Telegraph noted, "who would have believed, in their wildest dreams, that President George W. Bush would find time to visit Northern Ireland in the middle of war in Iraq?"

Although Northern Ireland will observe the fifth anniversary of its hard-won and historic 1998 peace agreement on Thursday, disagreements, mainly between the IRA-allied Sinn Fein and pro-British unionists, have kept it from being fully and permanently implemented.

The crown jewel of the agreement—an elected assembly that equally distributes power between the province's Protestants and Catholics—is currently suspended, for the fourth time. Britain, which still controls the six-county province, last suspended the assembly Oct. 14 and on three prior occasions rather than have it collapsed by the UUP and Trimble, who have threatened to walk out until the Irish Republican Army demonstrates it has destroyed its hundreds of tons of illegal and hidden weapons.

In recent weeks, there have been tantalizing hints by British reporters, quoting unnamed IRA sources, that the republican army may be on the verge of a major announcement that its decades-long "armed struggle" against British control in Northern Ireland is finally at an end.

Addressing Sinn Fein's annual conference in Dublin at the end of March, Adams told party members that "our strategy, and Mr. Trimble knows this, is about bringing an end to physical force republicanism."

"So can I envisage a future without the IRA?" he said. "The answer is yes."

The trick is that full IRA disarmament may depend on key aspects of the 1998 peace agreement being put in place. Sinn Fein wants more control of the makeup of the province's police force, which is now Protestant-dominated. Ulster republicans also want some form of amnesty for IRA members on the run, and want to limit Trimble's and the UUP's power to close down the assembly.

After Bush leaves for Washington, those issues will still likely be the chief stumbling blocks to Northern Ireland's permanent peace.


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