US President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown began their first official summit yesterday as they made a concerted effort to prevent the divisive issue of Iraq from damaging the bilateral alliance.
With both sides emphasizing the breadth of their ties, a red-carpet welcome has been scheduled for the new British leader at the presidential retreat in Camp David, Maryland, for 5:55pm.
But there were early indications the thorny issue of Iraq and the growing clamor on both sides of the Atlantic for an early military pullout from there could weigh heavily on the meeting designed to set the tone for the Bush-Brown relationship.
On the eve of Brown's arrival, the Sunday Times reported on its Web site that Simon McDonald, the prime minister's chief foreign policy adviser, quietly visited the US capital earlier this month and tried to sound out top US foreign policy experts about the possibility of an early pullout of British troops from Iraq.
The White House flatly refused to comment on the report -- but issued no denial.
With nearly 5,500 soldiers currently deployed in Iraq, experts warn a British withdrawal could have a devastating effect on the beleaguered operation.
Both Bush and Brown are under strong domestic pressure to take bold steps to resolve the Iraq quagmire without delay.
A CBS News-New York Times poll taken on July 20-22 showed that only 25 percent of Americans now approve of Bush's handling of Iraq while 69 percent disapproved of it.
The British public has displayed similar impatience.
A blue-ribbon policy commission published a report earlier this month, calling on the British government to end combat operations in Iraq.
At least for the time being, both sides appear to be determined to maintain decorum and not to allow sudden moves that could damage their overall relationship.
In a statement issued ahead of the summit, Brown called Britain's ties to the US "our single most important bilateral relationship," noting that it rested "on our common values of liberty, opportunity and the dignity of the individual."
"The special relationship is under threat and stands in a precarious long-term position," Nile Gardiner, director of the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think tank, wrote on Friday.
He noted among the factors working against the alliance the rise of anti-Americanism in Britain, growing attempts by the al-Qaeda network to undermine US-British ties, and "the continuing loss of British sovereignty" in the EU.
Gardiner also noted that the election of Harriet Harman, a critic of the Iraq war, as the Labour Party's deputy leader has fueled fears of Britain's desire to leave Iraq quickly.
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