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Bush, Blair to Talk Iraq Reconstruction

April 7, 2003

WASHINGTON (AP) _ President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair are grappling with three of the world’s toughest conflicts during Bush’s 19-hour visit to Belfast, discussing war and rebuilding in Iraq while trying to revive peace efforts in Northern Ireland and the Middle East.

Bush departed Washington early Monday en route to Belfast for a summit meant primarily to review war progress and to iron out differences about how Iraq will be rebuilt and governed when hostilities end.

The reconstruction question has divided the president’s advisers and the United States and Britain. Blair wants deeper U.N. involvement in postwar Iraq than Bush, who seeks a transitional governing authority consisting of Iraqi exiles and people living in the country now.

Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, the other leader invited to the summit, said Monday he would tell Bush the United Nations should have a primary role in the reconstruction of Iraq.

``We want to see a new administration that will have greater legitimacy if it is under the (authority) of the international community,″ he told reporters in Dublin.

It wasn’t clear whether the summit would produce firm agreements on postwar Iraq. White House spokesman Sean McCormack said the meeting would ``further the process of considering these questions about post-Saddam Iraq, reconstruction, humanitarian aid.″

The Bush-Blair meeting is the two leaders’ third face-to-face session in just over three weeks.

By agreeing to Blair’s request to meet in Belfast, Bush is taking the boldest step of his presidency into the decades-old conflict in Northern Ireland, and adding a set of issues that complicates his trip.

Then-President Bill Clinton made three trips to Northern Ireland, the most of any U.S. president. Clinton’s envoy, former Sen. George Mitchell, led the Belfast negotiations that produced the British province’s Good Friday peace accord of 1998. That pact sought to end three decades of sectarian conflict in the British territory that saw more than 3,600 killings.

Bush has shown less interest, delegating the business of following Belfast developments to a senior State Department official, Richard Haass.

Blair, a stalwart ally of Bush in the Iraq war, hopes presidential backing will strengthen his hand when he publishes his government’s new Northern Ireland plans by Thursday, the fifth anniversary of the Good Friday pact.

McCormack said Bush’s visit was meant to lend support to Blair’s efforts.

Bush and Blair drew Ahern into their talks on Northern Ireland, inviting him to a lunch on Tuesday.

The location of the summit, Hillsborough Castle outside Belfast, shields Bush and Blair from the kind of mass anti-war protests that have engulfed London and other European cities. Members of Sinn Fein, the political arm of the Irish Republican Army, planned to demonstrate against the war outside the castle.

But there was unprecedented security at the castle, and in contrast to previous meetings there, protesters were not allowed near the gates.

Placards in downtown Belfast branded Bush a ``war criminal″ and urged citizens to join anti-war protests Monday.

Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams said he was troubled by the ``insensitivity here about calling a war summit in Ireland.″

``It doesn’t take into account the concerns that the vast majority of people here have about what’s happening in Iraq,″ Adams said in Belfast’s News Letter newspaper. ``If I have the opportunity, I have no problem being on an anti-war demonstration and then going in to talk to the president.″

Bush and Blair are also trying to breathe new life into the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians. Blair has previously held up the progress in Northern Ireland in recent years as a model to inspire peace in the Middle East.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said there are no plans to release Bush’s long-sought ``road map″ for Middle East peace during the meeting.

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