British-US tie loosens over Iraq

Blair, Bush meeting Friday shadowed by bin Laden tape, murder of Italian.

Two weeks of kidnapping, mayhem, and carnage in Iraq, which has provoked a muscular US military response, has also drawn a deeper divide in US-European relations. Even with America's chief ally, Britain.

As Prime Minister Tony Blair arrives in Washington Friday for his first tête-à-tête with President Bush in five months, experts say that clear differences on peacekeeping and nation-building are likely to be expressed.

The slaughter of an Italian hostage Wednesday - the first known murder of dozens of foreigners believed to be kidnapped in the country - serves as a brutal reminder of the pressure on US allies in Iraq. The meeting Firday is also likely to be overshadowed by a purported Osama bin Laden tape, aired on Arab satellite networks Thursday, calling for a "truce" with Europe if it pulls its troops out of Islamic nations.

Britain, Germany, Italy, and Spain dismissed the tape as an effort to distance Europe further from the US; Italy and Britain said they would not flinch from Iraq. But as Mr. Blair and Mr. Bush discuss the planned June 30 sovereignty handover, Britain's prime minister is likely to express concern that the US military approach could have grave implications for reconciliation, reconstruction, and sovereignty transfer.

"Behind the scenes there are quite a lot of misgivings in the Blair camp about the direction things are going in Iraq," says David Mepham, a former government adviser and head of the international program at the London-based Institute for Public Policy Research, a progressive think-tank. "Publicly they will say there's not a matchstick between us, but privately there are differences."

A robust US response to the Sunni and Shiite uprisings, which has left hundreds dead, has unsettled British military and political chiefs, who fret that it will alienate locals and the international community, both of whom are vital to the success of Iraqi transition.

"The Americans will find it very hard to institute democratic governance in Iraq if they are increasingly seen as the enemy of the Iraqi people, and that's what happens when civilians are killed on the battlefield," says Christopher Langton, who heads the defense analysis department at the London-based Institute for International Strategic Studies. "Once you are seen as the adversary it becomes harder and harder to persuade people that you are a force for good."

Officially, Downing Street denies major differences between the two allies, insisting that both want to stick to the June 30 timetable and secure greater UN involvement.

"We are in agreement with the US about the overall strategy in Iraq," says a Blair spokesman, noting that commanders - British and American - must be free to make decisions on the ground as situations arise.

Yet US and British commanders have done this in distinct ways in Iraq. From the early days soon after the war was over, British troops quickly swapped helmets for berets and armored vehicles for foot patrols. True, they had the more tranquil south to deal with, while the Americans grappled with the restive Sunni triangle, but experts say there was more to it than that.

Britain's postcolonial heritage has theoretically equipped it well to dealing with situations like Iraq. A hostile local populace, a power vacuum, economic shambles, inexperienced local law enforcement bodies: British troops have seen it all before in the ruins of empire, and its military forces have long since been drilled in dealing with such situations, says Colonel Langton.

The Americans meanwhile "don't train to any great degree in low-intensity operations like peacekeeping and peace enforcement," Langton says. "All those aspects are practiced by the British.... It is quite fortunate that the British are not actually fighting alongside the Americans because they would find it very difficult to agree" with their tactics.

Historical differences mean that Britain and America view the Iraqi turmoil from different standpoints, argues Daniel Neep, a regional expert. The British feel they have experience in nation-building, while the Americans worry that the British may be making some of the same old mistakes of the past, like misjudging local moods.

"Obviously there are diverging opinions between US and British policymakers, but this is to do with different historical experiences," says Mr. Neep, of the Royal United Services Institute. He also noted a feeling within the US camp, revealed by an official in a British newspaper interview, that suggested the British might be using its foothold in southern Iraq to pursue reconciliation with neighboring Iran.

"That's inevitable because the British have better relations with Iranians than the Americans," says Neep, "and because they are more exposed to them in the south." An Iranian delegation arrived in Baghdad Wednesday, to mediate between the Americans and rebel Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr in Najaf, reportedly at Britain's suggestion.

Blair scheduled a stop-off in New York en route to Washington to discuss with UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan the possibility of enhanced UN involvement in Iraq's transition.

But British officials fear that the mayhem in Iraq will scarcely encourage other countries to come forward with troops for what would be a dangerous and politically sensitive mission. Several countries already in the coalition are feeling the heat as their troops are targeted and their judgment in joining the Iraq campaign called into question.

The US will be reluctant meanwhile to cede authority to any UN-mandated force; the UN will be chary of involvement unless it has authority. Blair once again is cast in the role of broker.

"The US would look for any assistance it can get, but the question is the degree of power it would have to yield to other entities" like the UN, says Neep. "There certainly won't be any reduction of US troops, and US military commanders will remain in control."

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