Bush and Blair: different postwar visions

The US and British leaders meet for talks on Iraq at Camp David Thursday.

When Prime Minister Tony Blair compares notes with President Bush at Camp David Thursday on their war in Iraq, their jottings may bear little resemblance to each other.

In their first week of war, US and British troops have been engaged in completely different tasks in Iraq. While US troops forge northward in what commanders say is the "fastest and furthest" progress in military history, their British allies are bogged down with the less heralded containment and security work in the country's south.

US forces have sustained casualties in battle and seen prisoners taken; the British have lost more lives to tragic accidents than anything else. For US marines, fatigue is the big enemy; for the British it is friendly fire. Even the elements are treating the two allies differently - sandstorms for the US and driving rain for the British.

But beyond these battlefield anomalies, London and Washington face fundamental political differences over Iraq's future. Bush and Blair may be united in their determination to topple Saddam Hussein's regime, but they are not so unequivocal on what they will put in its place.

President Bush is already lining up a tentative Iraqi administration in waiting, run by senior US civilian and military officials who would oversee a transition to a democratic government.

The prime minister comes to Camp David with the delicate task of convincing the US leader that this is the wrong approach. The alternative Blair will push revolves around an organization unpopular in certain quarters in Washington: the UN.

Blair has voiced confidence that President Bush will see the sense in trying to resurrect the UN's oil-for-food program - which allowed Iraq to sell crude oil and use the proceeds to buy food and medicines - and then later pushing for a UN resolution to settle the fate of postconflict Iraq. "In the conversations I have had with President Bush, it is very clear that we should make sure that any postconflict Iraqi administration has the full support of the UN," Blair told British lawmakers Wednesday. "That is the position both of the British government and the US administration."

Some suspect it may not be as easy as that.

"The problem for Blair is that even if the Bush administration [officials] agree - and a lot [of them] are skeptical of the UN - it is not clear that the UN will go along with this," says Paul Whiteley, political science professor at Essex University. "The French, Germans, and Russians may well say, 'You got into this mess, you sort it out'."

US senior officials have hastened to say that their immediate postwar arrangement is temporary - lasting, they hope, a few months until an interim Iraqi government takes over. The civilian administrators would be made up largely of retired US diplomats.

Circumventing the UN and installing an American civilian peacekeeping administration under the military - however temporary - would be a departure from recent tradition and a rejection of one of the UN's key post-cold-war roles.

Blair desperately needs to bring the UN back into the picture in Iraq to cement his position both at home and abroad.

Domestically, the war's outbreak quickly relieved enormous pressure on the prime minister. Polls that had all but condemned him have swung dramatically in favor of his decisive military stand. The mood in Parliament has changed from outright hostility to support for the 45,000 troops Britain has sent to the Persian Gulf. A weekend antiwar protest drew just a fraction of the million-plus demonstrators who turned out a month ago.

But this "honeymoon period" will not last, analysts predict. The spectacle of errant cruise missiles killing Iraqi civilians is already having a sobering effect, while the prospect of a bloody battle for Baghdad, as well as the military frustrations and setbacks of the campaign, has started to worry the public.

"I don't think that they envisaged the scale of the opposition, that's certainly true," said Philip Mitchell, a military expert with the Institute for International Strategic Studies. "The campaign is going as well as can be expected, but [Baghdad] is going to be a tough battle."

A poll in the Daily Telegraph Wednesday showed an overwhelming 75 percent of people were concerned by the number of accidents and friendly-fire incidents that have claimed the majority of British fatalities so far. The paper said the "euphoria phase" of the war was over. With support likely to dwindle the longer war goes on, Blair needs constantly to remind his public that he is prosecuting this war to deliver Iraq into a democratic future, not merely "annex" it for petro-political reasons.

But he also wants to involve the UN for diplomatic reasons. Blair sees Britain as the glue that can stick the international community back together after it was shattered by the Security Council dissonance on Iraq. His argument is that UN involvement is important as a first stage in bringing nations bitterly divided over the Iraq war - principally the US and France - back under the umbrella organization.

There is moreover, a nervousness that without broad international validation, the post-war political development of Iraq will prove volatile and vulnerable to Iraqi disaffection. The US will need UN cover, says Whiteley. "You need to internationalize it," he says. "Otherwise, British and US troops policing the peace will be exposed."

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