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Bush, Blair seek common ground

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February 24, 2001 


THURMONT, Md. (AP) President Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair, pledging to preserve the special relationship between the United States and Britain, said Friday they would explore ways to make sanctions against Iraq ``more realistic'' and seek common ground among skeptical European allies about a U.S. missile defense system.

In his first meeting with a European leader, Bush brought Blair to Camp David, the secluded presidential retreat in Maryland's Catoctin Mountains. Bush said Saddam should not see any changes of the decade-old sanctions regime as a sign of weakness, warning Saddam not to ``cross any line and test our will.'' A week ago, American and British warplanes carried out airstrikes against Iraqi air defense sites.

Blair said the two counties share values, interests and a historical relationship that will ``strengthen in the years to come.''

``I can assure you that when either of us gets in a bind,'' Bush said, ``there will be a friend on the other end of the phone.''

The leaders broke little ground at their joint news conference, though Bush signed onto a European defense force independent of NATO. The president announced that China had agreed to ``remedy'' the situation if Beijing had as the United States suspects helped Iraq build better defense systems. And he signaled a less involved role for the United States in the Northern Ireland peace process.

``I'm going to wait to be asked by the prime minister,'' Bush said.

Blair, who had turned repeatedly to Clinton for help in Northern Ireland, said in Bush's case that ``it's difficult to foresee the exact circumstances in which I might pick up the phone and ask the president to help.''

From the smallest detail, the two leaders sought to strike a casual, friendly tone. They addressed reporters while standing in front of a glowing fire at a quaint lodge, their respective flags at either side. Bush wore a leather bomber jacket ``George W. Bush. President'' was stenciled on one pocket atop a blue V-neck sweater.

Blair, too, wore a sweater but seemed flummoxed by Bush's playful nature. When a reporter asked the leaders to name some things they have in common, Bush replied sarcastically, ``We both use Colgate toothpaste.''

Blair responded: ``They're going to wonder how you knew that, George,'' then apologized for the question coming from a member of his press corps.

Their meetings are taking place amid the snowy splendor of the presidential retreat that dates to Franklin Roosevelt, who had British Prime Minister Winston Churchill as his first guest at Camp David. The hub of the Marine camp is a half dozen modest, low-slung lodges all painted pea green nestled in the Maryland woods.

The leaders lunched in Laurel lodge, the largest of the group with a floor-to-ceiling window overlooking the wintry landscape, before walking to the Holly lodge used by Churchill more than 50 years ago.

Blair arrived aboard a U.S. Marine helicopter, kicking up sheets of snow as a color guard formed on either side of a long pathway. Bush and his wife, Laura, greeted Blair and his wife, Cherie, and the foursome then walked to a golf cart equipped with a zippered plastic cover.

Taking charge, Bush got behind the wheel and drove the group off to their meetings.

Afterward, the leaders made a show of standing strong against Iraq, while agreeing that the sanctions regime might need to be tweaked to keep the pressure on Saddam and limit the impact on Iraqi civilians.

``A change in a sanction regime that is not working should not be any kind of signal whatsoever to him that he should cross any line and test our will, because we're absolutely determined to make that part of the world a more peaceful place by keeping this guy in check,'' Bush said.

Blair said he shared Bush's concern about missiles being launched against allies by rogue states but stopped short of endorsing the president's push for a missile defense system. He noted that Bush has not put a specific proposal on the table, allowing that ``it's important that we look at every single way we possibly can of dealing with this threat.''

Coming into the meeting, a potential sticking point in U.S.-British relations was the discussion among European countries of creating their own military forces, less dependent on the United States. Though the idea has already run into budgetary and other squabbles, some in the United States fear it could undermine NATO.

In a joint statement released after the news conference, the leaders agreed that such a force would deal with ``crisis management'' when NATO as a whole does not want to get involved.

Bush said Blair assured him that ``NATO is going to be the primary way to keep the peace in Europe.''

On China, Bush said he accepted Beijing's response to accusations that it has aided Iraq.

``I think you always got to begin with trust until proven otherwise,'' Bush said. Afterward, Condoleezza Rice, Bush's national security adviser, declined to elaborate on the president's statement.

At the State Department, an official said China's response came during a meeting Friday between Ambassador Joseph Prueher and senior Chinese officials. The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Prueher expressed concern about Chinese activities in Iraq that might violate U.N. sanctions. The Chinese responded as Bush indicated in his comments at Camp David, the official said.

Also in the news conference, Blair called Clinton a friend, but would not comment on the pardon controversy surrounding the former president.

And the leaders downplayed their ideological differences, with Bush jumping to Blair's defense when a reporter called the British prime minister a tax-raiser. ``Quit slandering the man.''

In matter of style and politics, Blair had more in common with Clinton; they are Oxford graduates who married high-powered lawyers and hewed to the political center to create a ``third way'' of governing in their respective countries. Blair became Clinton's best friend among foreign leaders.

Now Blair seeks to rebuild close personal links to Washington under far different circumstances. In Bush, he will find a partner whose domestic views are more conservative and a president who is viewed by European leaders as less engaged in world affairs.

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