Wed, Nov 12, 2003 - Page 7 News List

Blair backs Bush's visit, pleads for more understanding


British Prime Minister Tony Blair on Monday launched an impassioned defense of US President George W. Bush's visit to London next week and pleaded with anti-war protesters to put the arguments about war behind them and focus on Iraq's future.

With a week to go before Bush arrives, the promise of the three-day visit is already acting as a magnet for protesters and anarchists from all over Europe.

The Guardian learned last night of tension between US Secret Service agents, who want an exclusion zone round the president, and London Mayor Ken Livingstone, who wants the demonstrators to be guaranteed as much freedom as possible. The Metropolitan police are caught in the middle.

Blair devoted the bulk of his annual foreign policy speech at the Guildhall in London to Bush's state visit. Confronting critics who say political embarrassment lies ahead and that he must regret having issued the invitation, Blair insisted he was not nervous: "I believe this is exactly the right time for him to come."

He adopted an apocalyptic tone to justify Bush's visit, saying the battle for Iraq was more important than most people realized.

"It is a battle of seminal importance for the early 21st century. It will define relations between the Muslim world and the west. It will influence profoundly the development of Arab states and the Middle East," he said. "It will have far-reaching implications for the future conduct of American and western diplomacy," he said.

The Stop the War Coalition and the Muslim Association of Britain hope that 100,000 protesters will take to the streets. Scotland Yard has cancelled all leave for the three days Bush will be in London.

About 3,800 British police will be involved in the security operation, in addition to up to 250 armed US Secret Service agents.

Sir John Stevens, commissioner of the Metropolitan police, is in a position of acute sensitivity. While the White House is insisting on maximum security, Livingstone's office has made clear to Scotland Yard its insistence that those who want to are left free to demonstrate. One source said: "The view was expressed that a legitimate protest must be facilitated."

He said comparisons were being drawn with the visit of then Chinese president Jiang Zemin (江澤民) in 1999. When he rode up The Mall, police stopped protesters from holding up protest banners and Tibetan flags.

"There must be no repeat of that fiasco," said the source.

Members of London's Police Authority have also expressed concern, insisting that the bill for the police operation not be paid by local ratepayers. Eric Ollerenshaw, who is also leader of the Conservative group on the London assembly, said: "We must be sure that the government pays and we must look at where all these police officers are going to be coming from."

Bush will arrive on Tuesday and is scheduled to make a speech the following day. Much of his time will be spent with Queen Elizabeth at Buckingham Palace, a useful photo opportunity for next year's presidential election and one he will not want marred by huge demonstrations.

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