Fri, Jul 18, 2003 - Page 6 News List

Blair begins trip to US under fire


British Prime Minister Tony Blair, America's unwavering ally in the war in Iraq, headed to Washington yesterday with the alliance showing strains over intelligence and US determination to try two British citizens before a military tribunal.

On the first leg of a seven-day whirlwind tour that takes in Japan, South Korea, China and Hong Kong, Blair has the rare honor of addressing a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill.

But the dispute over the quality of intelligence used to justify military action against Saddam Hussein threatens to cloud his visit.

The fate of two British terror suspects facing a military tribunal at Guantanamo Bay is also likely to preoccupy Blair at the White House, before he travels on to the Far East for bilateral trade talks and dialogue on the nuclear standoff with North Korea.

Intelligence and the coalition's failure to find weapons of mass destruction are likely to dominate his talks with US President George W. Bush.

Two parliamentary committees are probing the British government's use of intelligence information in a pair of dossiers published to bolster the case for war. The committees have looked closely at two issues: a claim that Iraq was capable of deploying some chemical or biological weapons within 45 minutes, and the claim that Iraq was seeking to buy uranium in the West African nation of Niger.

The Iraq row has dominated British headlines for weeks and has dented public confidence in the government. According to a Populus survey published earlier this month, 54 percent of respondents said they would not trust Blair "further than I could throw him."

Blair is under pressure to raise the issue of Moazzam Begg, 35, and Feroz Abbasi, 23 -- two Britons being held at the US naval base in Cuba. More than 200 British lawmakers have signed a parliamentary motion protesting America's plans to try them before a US military tribunal. The government says it has "strong reservations" about such a process and insists they must have a fair trial.

"This is an issue which is subject to continuing discussions with the Americans," a Blair aide said.

Newspapers see the case as a key test of Anglo-US relations and whether Blair's partnership with Bush in the war on terror will bear fruit.

The nine-month-old crisis surrounding North Korea's nuclear development will play a significant part in the remainder of the prime minister's trip, particularly in China.

The nuclear standoff flared last October when US officials said Pyongyang admitted having a secret nuclear program in violation of a 1994 pact with Washington.

China's role is pivotal because it exerts considerable leverage over North Korea as a major source of food and fuel to its impoverished neighbor. In April it hosted the first formal talks between Washington and Pyongyang since the dispute began.

Officials say Blair's visit to China will be a chance also to improve diplomatic and trade relations. But the prime minister's visit to the former British colony of Hong Kong comes at a sensitive time. In recent weeks, thousands of demonstrators have staged rallies ago a proposed anti-subversion law which they say threatens civil rights.

Britain says it still has an "enduring moral and political" responsibility to the territory. But the issue could strain relations with Beijing if the prime minister is drawn into the dispute, which has thrown Hong Kong Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa's government into a crisis.

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