Bush visit to Britain could prove awkward for Blair

President Bush embarks this week on a visit to his closest ally in the war on terrorism and the Iraq campaign, yet the reception he can expect in London will be anything but friendly.

As many as 100,000 protesters are planning to swarm through the British capital, toppling an 20-foot effigy of Mr. Bush in a mocking echo of the conquest of Baghdad. Police are bracing for one of the biggest operations for any state visit, promising acute vigilance with a 5,000-strong force because of the high security alert already in place in London.

Even Bush's host, Prime Minister Tony Blair, will be on edge: Polls are showing his close association with the US president over Iraq has decimated his popularity.

Bush arrives Tuesday for a three-day state visit that will include Buckingham Palace banquets and Downing Street discussions. Tellingly, there are no walkabouts planned. Instead, Bush will meet bereaved families of the British soldiers killed in Iraq, give speeches (on AIDS and on the US alliance with Britain), visit Mr. Blair's constituency of Sedgefield, northeast England, and overnight at Buckingham Palace. It is the first time in more than 20 years that a US president has visited Britain as a guest of Queen Elizabeth II.

Guy Taylor of Globalise Resistance, a group opposed to the rise of corporate power, says protest organizers have been encouraging activists from across Europe to head to Britain specifically for the Bush visit. In February, an estimated one million protesters took part in an antiwar demonstration in London.

A poll last week showed that just 40 percent of Britons think that Blair's loyalty to Bush has been good for Britain, and 37 percent think war was the right course of action. Given these sentiments, the visit - planned before the Iraq war at a time of great post-Sept. 11 sympathy here toward the US - could be politically awkward now for Blair, many say.

"From a point of view of public relations, it's not good timing," says Wyn Grant, professor of politics at the University of Warwick in central England. "Things have been going badly in Iraq, so the visit is bound to have a further effect on public opinion, confirming the view of those people doubtful in the first place about the campaign."

While Bush and Blair have maintained a steadfast alliance on Iraq, there are issues on which the two have not exactly seen eye to eye - from US steel tariffs to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the detention without trial of nine British terrorist suspects at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

Blair has supported a European Union defense capability separate from NATO, and joined France and Germany in backing a deal that would give Iran more access to civilian nuclear technology in exchange for opening itself to nuclear inspections. Washington has given both of these initiatives a cool reception.

As Bush told British reporters in Washington: "We've got a lot to talk about."

Topping the list is Iraq, the most pressing subject for two partners who have not always agreed on postwar tactics, but who now appear closer than ever on the need to transfer authority to Iraqis as soon as possible. "The key thing they have to discuss is how to deal with the morass in Iraq, what is the way forward, how can one transfer authority to a regime in Iraq that is legitimate and has the confidence of the Iraqi people," says Professor Grant.

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