Originally created 03/15/03

Bush, Blair, Aznar to meet in Azores



WASHINGTON -- In a last-minute stab at diplomacy, President Bush, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar will search for a way to win U.N. backing for using force to disarm Iraq when they confer Sunday at a hurriedly arranged meeting on an Azores island in the eastern-Atlantic.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer described the talks as "an effort to pursue every last bit of diplomacy" in the face of fading hopes for approval of a U.N. war resolution.

Bush will depart for the Azores Sunday morning. It will be a one-day trip,

"The president is still committed to this diplomatic process and is still committed to try to push (the resolution) through the United Nations. We shall see if that can or cannot be done," Fleischer said.

The leaders also are likely to discuss plans for Iraq in any scenario in which Saddam is deposed.

At the United Nations, several Security Council members said they hoped the summit would provide a peaceful compromise.

"If it could in any way contribute to (getting) a consensus on the council, we would welcome it," said Pakistan's ambassador, Munir Akram.

On the verge of an embarrassing defeat at the U.N., the administration arranged the summit as it backpedaled from a pledge to hold a vote on the resolution this week. U.S. officials also said for the first time Thursday that Bush may withdraw the measure - and fight Iraq without the U.N.'s consent.

The president has said that without the United Nations, he could form a "coalition of the willing" outside the U.N. That coalition would include Britain and Spain, U.S. officials said, but they insisted that Bush, Blair and Aznar will not discuss battlefield tactics and detailed military strategies.

The summit was intended to be a symbolic show of resolve to do everything possible to avoid war, said U.S. officials, even as they conceded that war appears almost inevitable.

Aides said Bush approved the summit and a brief extension of diplomacy out of respect for Blair, whose support of Bush has drawn severe criticism in Britain.

As he prepared to leave for the Azores, Bush sought to remind Americans that he believes removing Saddam will pave way to peace in the Middle East. Standing in the Rose Garden with Secretary of State Colin Powell, the president pledged Friday to release his long-sought "road map" for Middle East peace once a credible Palestinian prime minister takes office.

Fleischer said Bush still hoped that war could be avoided, perhaps by Saddam seeking exile. But he also said that stiff opposition to a U.N. resolution has eased pressure against the Iraqi president.

"Here is where the stakes are. If the Security Council is able to pass a resolution - much like what has been discussed by the United States, the British and the Spanish - it is still possible for Saddam Hussein to see the writing on the wall and to get out of Iraq and therefore preserve peace," he said.

"To the degree that other nations erase the writing on the wall, it makes it less likely for Saddam Hussein to leave and that this can be settled peacefully," Fleischer said.

France's promise to veto any war resolution has angered Bush and could complicate U.S.-French relations long after the Iraq conflict, several administration officials said.

The Azores Islands, which belong to Portugal, are a traditional eastern-Atlantic refueling stop. Portugal is among the countries which have offered Bush logistical support in any war in Iraq, and it granted U.S. permission to use Lajes Field air base in the island chain.

The summit will be held on the air base, which is located 2,300 miles from the U.S. and 900 miles from Europe.

News of the meeting first surfaced Thursday morning, but officials said planning had stopped, only to confirm hours later that talks had resumed amid tense discussions at the United Nations.

A senior administration official told The Associated Press the United States was waiting for Mexico and Chile to decide. In a constantly shifting lineup, the two Latin American countries could ensure the nine votes required for council approval - provided there was no veto, which both France and Russia have said they would cast.

Whatever the decision, the United States will declare that Iraq has missed its final opportunity to disarm, the official said.

The Security Council vote wasn't Bush's only problem. The president sent a letter to incoming Turkish Premier Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Vice President Dick Cheney called the leader in hopes of securing permission to invade Iraq through Turkey or to use Turkish airspace for an attack.

But Turkey dismissed the appeals, U.S. officials said, and the Pentagon began preparing invasion plans that did not include Turkey.

Within hours, Navy ships armed with Tomahawk cruise missiles were told to move out of the Mediterranean and into the Red Sea. There are more than 225,000 U.S. troops in the region.

Britain proffered a compromise, a series of tests or "benchmarks" to measure Iraq's sincerity about disarming. But France opposed the move and Iraq exulted it could end the political career of the British prime minister.