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Smiles in the Rose Garden, but all hell continues in Iraq

Blair and Bush put on a brave face as power in Iraq ebbs away

Francis Elliott, Nigel Morris and Andrew Buncombe

With a last cheery wave, Tony Blair and George Bush turned their backs on the Rose Garden and the watching world and stepped back into the privacy of the Oval Office.

The French doors closed behind the last of their trailing entourage and the two leaders sat down to a lunch of Texan food: quail and corn grits. As he chatted to the President's wife, however, Mr Blair is bound to have wondered whether this was his last meal in the Bush White House. Just three hours after their joint press conference the TV pictures of sunlit-dappled statesmen amid the tulips were replaced by the terrified face of Keith Maupin, a 20-year-old soldier from Ohio, flanked by AK47-toting insurgents.

The taking of the first US hostage was a sharp reminder that the political fate of both men is now also dependent on events in Iraq.

Last week's swirl of diplomatic activity was intended to portray a President in control after traumatic weeks of chaos and bloodshed. First Ariel Sharon, then Tony Blair rallied to his side as Mr Bush pledged he would not be deflected from his course.

The truth, however, is that the events of the past month have greatly reduced his power to dictate the future of either Iraq or the wider Middle East. Mr Bush's decision to allow the UN a "central role" has been forced on him, not by Mr Blair, but by the failure of the hawks in the Pentagon to deliver a "Pax Americana".

Significantly, Donald Rumsfeld, the US Defence Secretary, was not present when Mr Blair sat down for his two-hour session with Mr Bush before Friday's press conference. Instead Colin Powell, the dovish Secretary of State, whose doubts about the wisdom of the war continue to surface, was selected to participate in the discussions.

Mr Powell is quoted as having warned the President two months before the invasion of Iraq of the likely problems ahead.

"You're sure?" Mr Powell is said to have asked Mr Bush when he told him of the decision to invade in January 2003. "You break it, you own it," he said, underlining the extent to which Mr Bush was about to make himself responsible for another country's destiny.

Mr Powell's presence in the Oval Office on Friday was one more sign of how far the President has been forced to accept the folly of his failure to listen to that advice.

Where once Iraq's political future was in the hands of Mr Bush's neo-conservative friends such as Mr Rumsfeld, it has now been passed to a 70-year-old Algerian career diplomat, Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN special representative in Baghdad. Mr Brahimi's previous postings, from Haiti to Afghanistan, may stand him in good stead in the coming weeks as he works to construct an Iraqi government that could command popular support.

But, as Patrick Cockburn reports (opposite), the omens for success in his enterprise are not good, trapped as he is within the military cordon surrounding Baghdad's "Green Zone". His efforts will have been discussed in detail in the Oval Office on Friday. As well as Mr Powell, the President invited Condoleezza Rice, the National Security Adviser, to the crisis talks. For his part, Mr Blair was accompanied by Nigel Sheinwald, his chief foreign policy adviser, and Jonathan Powell, his chief of staff.

Mr Blair is likely to have passed on the analysis of Kofi Annan, the UN Secretary-General, with whom he had dined the previous night in New York. Mr Annan, a close friend of Mr Brahimi, gave Mr Blair an unvarnished assessment of the Algerian diplomat's chances of success, according to aides.

The stakes could hardly be higher. Mr Brahimi's report on whether the 30 June deadline for a handover is still possible will be a defining moment for Mr Bush's nascent presidential campaign. Polls already place the President six to 10 points behind his Democrat challenger, Senator John Kerry, and the key approval rating on his handling of the war has slipped from 51 per cent to 44 per cent in recent weeks.

The extension of US soldiers' tours, many of whom have been in Iraq for a year, was deeply unpopular: the mood in small-town America soured as the homecoming bunting was taken down. The situation in Iraq and the drip of damaging revelations about what the administration knew before 11 September is undermining Mr Bush's key election weapon, his leadership of the war on terror.

Mr Bush would also like to have campaigned over his record on 11 September, but it is increasingly apparent he cannot do that. Thrown on to the defensive several weeks ago by allegations from his former counter-terrorism chief, Richard Clarke, that he and his senior officials failed to consider the threat from al-Qa'ida, the issue of what Mr Bush may or may not have been told about Osama bin Laden's plans refuses to go away.

This week the independent commission investigating the circumstances of 11 September heard from senior intelligence officials about the lack of communication between the CIA and the FBI, and how certain clues were missed.

But fuelled by claims from a number of whistleblowers, as well as testimony from a series of senior officials, a public perception is developing that there were sufficient clues available to have made clear that al-Qa'ida was planning to attack the US using planes. That perception has been added to by the White House's decision to declassify an edited version of the presidential daily briefing, or PDB, to Mr Bush on 6 August, entitled "Bin Laden determined to strike US".

Ms Rice had previously claimed that the information was "historical". Despite this, Mr Bush refuses to apologise to any of the 9/11 victims - a move that his advisers must have told him would be seized on as an admission of guilt or responsibility.

"I'm sick when I think about the death that took place on that day," Mr Bush said. "[But] the person who is responsible for the attacks was Osama bin Laden."

Mr Bush told a press conference this week: "I don't plan on losing my job. I plan on telling the American people that I've got a plan to win on terror. And I believe they'll stay with me. They understand the stakes."

Little wonder, perhaps, that Mr Bush has little political capital to spare on Israel. Brute electoral calculation also lay behind his endorsement of Mr Sharon's unilateral usurping of the Middle East "roadmap". Mr Bush is unable, or unwilling, to deliver the sort of pressure on Israel needed to force through the "roadmap" six months before his re-election campaign.

As Mr Blair's plane touched down shortly before 7am yesterday, the Prime Minister returned to his own domestic critics. However Mr Blair dresses it up, the President's acceptance of Israel's position that Palestinian refugees have no right of return is poor reward for the Prime Minister's support, and he faces fierce criticism from his own MPs when he addresses them at a meeting tomorrow evening.

Some of them will, no doubt, remind him that he urged their support for the war a year ago in large part by promising movement on the Middle East. "Partners are not servants," he told the Commons during the crucial debate on 18 March. In return for Britain's support in Iraq, he said: "We ask two things ... That the US choose the UN path and you should recognise the overriding importance of re-starting the Middle East peace process."

Even Mr Blair's allies on the Labour backbenches do not pretend that he has made good that deal this weekend. Clive Soley, the former chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party, warned Mr Blair that he would face a rough ride from MPs at tomorrow's meeting.

Mr Blair pre-empted his critics' attack yesterday with a series of interviews. "On the one side are the fanatics, the extremists and the terrorists," the Prime Minister told BBC Radio 4's Today programme. "On the other side, the Iraqi people - the vast majority, those decent people you meet on the Iraqi Governing Council - the UN, the coalition and any country that wants to see Iraq become stable.

"Now - in those circumstances - there is only one side to be on, and we have got to do what it takes to see it through and get it done."

In the same interview, however, Mr Blair said that it was "his job" to work with whoever is the American President. After the US elections in November, he may find that the "side to be on" has dramatically changed.

Baghdad so unsafe that UN envoy is not allowed to leave coalition enclave

By Patrick Cockburn in Baghdad

A plume of fire and oily black smoke rises from the back of an American Humvee hit by a rocket-propelled grenade on the highway to Baghdad airport. A resistance group warns Iraqis to keep off the road and promises further attacks.

Iraq is full of signs of the growing intensity of the war. The generals are keeping 21,000 soldiers, mostly from the 1st Armoured Division, in the country a further three months, breaking a promise that they would return home after a year in Iraq. Iraqis in Baghdad are apprehensive. Shopkeepers no longer leave valuable stock in their shops overnight but bring it home because they fear another outbreak of mass looting, like that which followed the fall of Saddam Hussein last year.

There has never been such a difference between the war-torn reality of Iraq and bland assertions by President George Bush and Tony Blair that progress is bring made. Mr Bush has repeatedly told Americans that sovereignty will be handed back to Iraqis on 30 June, as if this were an epoch-making event. In fact, there is no legitimate Iraqi authority to which sovereignty can be returned.

The US-appointed Iraqi Governing Council (IGC), considered something of an American puppet by Iraqis, has even less credibility than before the latest crises in Fallujah and Najaf. The US-trained Iraqi security forces - police, army and paramilitary units - showed over the past two weeks that they are not prepared to fight for the coalition against fellow Iraqis.

The US and Britain last week clutched at the straw of UN involvement by praising a plan presented by the UN envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi. He proposes dumping the IGC and appointing a new government that would be chosen by, among others, the UN.

"It is a plan for last year, not this year," said one Iraqi politician. He pointed out that it was an ill omen for any future UN involvement that Mr Brahimi, though surrounded by bodyguards, had been largely confined to the "Green Zone", the heavily guarded coalition-controlled compound in central Baghdad. One Shia leader who, as a matter of principle, has never entered the zone, recalled: "Brahimi was almost pleading with me to come and see him, saying, 'they won't let me out of here'."

If even central Baghdad is considered too dangerous for a well-protected UN official, would the organisation really send thousands of its officials to the country?

It is difficult to see the UN or Nato playing much of a role in the future of Iraq unless the US pulls out, and it shows no sign of doing this. It has shown little inclination to share power with anyone. The IGC says that despite pledges by Paul Bremer, the US viceroy in Baghdad, to consult it on important security matters, he did not bother to tell them about the intention of the US Marines to besiege Fallujah.

It is difficult to see how the US and Britain could tempt other countries to send troops to Iraq. The past week underlined what a dangerous country it is. At one time there were 40 foreign hostages. Three Japanese - two aid workers and a journalist -- were released and two other journalists were promptly kidnapped, only to be released yesterday. An Italian security guard, one of four captured by insurgents, was murdered. A US soldier, captured when his convoy was attacked west of Baghdad, was shown on a video made by guerrillas.

The US is paying a high price for privatising some military functions, such as driving trucks. Nobody knows the exact figures, but there are thought to be 6,000 foreign security guards and 15,000 foreign workers in Iraq, though the number is going down fast with the evacuation of hundreds of Russians engineers who had been working in the power industry. Some clergymen, both Sunni and Shia, have condemned hostage-taking. But the insurgents have learnt that taking captives wins instant publicity and puts intense pressure on governments.

The two crises facing Mr Bremer, the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad, show the strength and weakness of the US position. In Fallujah and Najaf, US troops are facing groups - possibly numbering under a thousand in each case - of lightly armed resistance fighters. The guerrillas, in the first case Sunni and in the second Shia, could be overrun in a matter of hours by heavily armoured units. But, in contrast with its military strength, the US is too weak politically in Iraq to launch all-out ground attacks.

If the US storms Fallujah, increasing the already terrible number of civilian casualties, it will alienate the 3.5 million Sunnis in Iraq. Previously the Sunnis, the base for Saddam Hussein's regime, were not happy - but only a minority gave full support to armed resistance to the occupation. The collective punishment of Fallujah means that middle-class, educated Sunnis from Baghdad - who cheered the fall of Saddam - have turned resolutely against the occupation. Fallujah has become a nationalist symbol.

The US is also hobbled in using its military strength against Muqtada al-Sadr and his Army of the Mehdi holed up in Najaf and Kufa. There are 2,500 US soldiers outside Najaf. The US is demanding that Mr Sadr hand himself over for arrest to an Iraqi court and that he disband the Mehdi Army. He has let the other Shia religious leaders do his negotiating for him and has allowed the police back into the police stations.

As in Fallujah - indeed more so - there is no doubt that the US army could blast its way into Najaf, the holy Shia city at the centre of which is the shrine of Imam Ali. But Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the revered religious leader of 15-16 million Iraqi Shias, has let it be known (he does not personally make statements) that he would regard the entry of US troops into either Najaf or Karbala as crossing a red line.

Ayatollah Sistani has not said what he would do if the US ignored his prohibition. Mr Sadr's office is close to the shrine. If Ayatollah Sistani and other Shia religious leaders call for any measure of resistance - even marches and the resignation of all Shias from the IGC - they will be obeyed. Mr Bremer is paying an extraordinarily high price for his ill-conceived plan to eliminate Mr Sadr, never very popular among the Shia previously. It has elevated him to the status of a potential martyr.

One Shia observer said: "The Americans simply do not understand that if the Shia have to chose between Muqtada and Sistani, the great majority will chose Sistani. But if they have to choose between Muqtada and the Americans, they will support Muqtada as one of their own over a foreign occupier."

It is still a mystery to Iraqis why Mr Bremer has shown such poor political judgement. There appears to be no co-ordination between him and the uniformed US military. Dr Hussain Shahristani, an influential Shia figure from Karbala, told The Independent on Sunday: "The Americans are completing misreading Shia sentiment. They have completely lost Shia trust." In southern Iraq, British and Polish officers anonymously but vigorously criticise US actions.

The next week may be a decisive one for the US in Iraq. If they do attack Fallujah or Najaf, the political cost will be great. But if they do not, Iraqis will see that they do not dare to eliminate opponents whom they had sworn to destroy.

ANOTHER BLOODY WEEK IN IRAQ

Sunday 11 April

In Baghdad, a Romanian security worker is killed in a convoy attack, and three US Marines are killed in Al-Anbar province west of the city. At least three other US soldiers are killed in Baghdad and Tikrit. In Fallujah, two US Marines are injured and 12 Iraqi guerrillas are killed in a street battle. In Nasiriyah, nine kidnapped foreigners, including one British civilian, are freed. Two French journalists are kidnapped.

Monday 12 April

Senior US commander General John Abizaid requests two additional military brigades - as many as 10,000 troops - to help to secure the central region. Iraqi militiamen withdraw from police stations and government facilities in Najaf, Kufa and Karbala, meeting US demands. In Fallujah, three Czech journalists and four Italian security workers are kidnapped. In Baghdad, three Russian and five Ukrainian engineering workers are kidnapped.

Tuesday 13 April

In Najaf, a large US force made up of 80 vehicles and 2,500 troops gathers on the outskirts of the city after President Bush's promise of "decisive force". Four US Marines are killed in Al-Anbar province. Nine Iraqis are killed and 38 wounded in fighting in Fallujah. Four mutilated bodies, thought to be those of US contractors, are found by a road west of Baghdad. A US soldier is killed in an bomb attack south of Baghdad. A Danish businessman is kidnapped on a highway north of Baghdad.

Wednesday 14 April

The first confirmed foreign civilian hostage, an Italian security worker, is murdered, while three more remain in captivity. Four Iraqis are killed and six others injured in an insurgent mortar attack aimed at a police station in Mosul. A French journalist kidnapped on Sunday is freed.

Thursday 15 April

An Iranian diplomat is shot near his embassy in Baghdad. Three Japanese civilian hostages are released after a week of captivity. A Jordanian businessman is abducted. Two Iraqi policemen are killed near a Karbala mosque controlled by Muqtada al-Sadr's militia.

Friday 16 April

Eight Iraqis are killed and 17 wounded by a failed insurgent mortar attack in Mosul. Near Kufa, at least five Iraqis are killed and 20 wounded, including women and civilians, in fighting between Shia militia and coalition forces. In Fallujah, 15 are reported dead in clashes despite negotiations. Three Iraqis are killed in clashes with a US army convoy south of Baghdad. A Canadian hostage is freed in Najaf. Three Czech hostages are freed in Baghdad. An American soldier, captured 9 April, appears on Arabic television surrounded by armed guerrillas.

Andrea Ford

Iraq death toll:

11-17 April

Iraqis: 58

US forces: 11

Other civilians: one Italian; four Americans; one Romanian; one Iranian