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As Bush, Blair open talks, Bush says Mideast peace deal doesn't require Arafat
President says Saddam Hussein 'needs to go'
By Ron Fournier, Associated Press, 04/05/02
CRAWFORD, Texas -- President Bush said Friday the U.S. quest for peace in the Middle East can succeed without Yasser Arafat because "there are others in the region who can lead." He also said Iraqi President Saddam Hussein "needs to go" and he was confident he could build a coalition to make that happen.
Bush laid down U.S. markers on the Palestinian and Iraqi leaders before opening weekend talks with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, a supporter of his Middle East policies. As Israel kept up its military offensive, the White House avoided criticizing it for not immediately following Bush's urgent request to pull back its forces.
The Middle East crisis and, to a lesser extent, Iraq are expected to dominate weekend talks between Bush and Blair.
The prime minister was having dinner Friday night at Bush's ranch with the president and his wife, Laura. Reflecting the special U.S.-British relationship, Bush invited Blair to join him for a top-secret CIA briefing Saturday.
Blair, who flew from Britain as the nation was mourning the death of the Queen Mother, wore a dark suit and tie when he stepped off a Marine helicopter at the ranch. Bush, wearing blue jeans and work boots, drove Blair from the scene in a white pickup truck.
Blair's wife, Cherie, arrives Saturday.
In advance of the talks, Bush said Arafat has repeatedly failed to keep his promises to stem terrorism and hasn't earned U.S. trust.
"He has let his people down and there are others in the region who can lead," Bush said, naming Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and King Abdullah II of Jordan.
"So (Secretary of State) Colin Powell is going to go to the region to gather those leaders up and to start a process, hopefully, that will lead to lasting peace," Bush said in a pre-meeting interview with Britain's ITV network.
Aides said Bush's comments were meant to be seen as a signal that he has decided to distance himself from Arafat and rely on other Arab leaders to bring peace.
On Thursday, Bush urged Arab leaders such as Mubarak to fill a void left by Arafat -- and senior administration officials said Powell may meet with Palestinian leaders other than Arafat next week.
Two days before his departure, Powell still had no plans to meet with Arafat, though the possibility was not ruled out.
In the interview, Bush dismissed the "silly notion" that he hasn't been involved enough in the Middle East. He also said that Israel-Palestinian talks led by President Clinton at Camp David, Md., in 2000 led to more violence.
"We've tried summits in the past, as you may remember," Bush said when asked why he was sending Powell on Sunday instead of personally trying to organize a peace summit. "It wasn't all that long ago where a summit was called and nothing happened, and as a result we had significant intefadeh in the area," Bush said.
When White House spokesman Ari Fleischer expressed a similar view recently, it was seen as a criticism of Clinton. Under pressure from the Democrat's former advisers, Bush aides had Fleischer renounce the statement.
Terrorism, particularly Bush's plans for Iraq, originally was to be the prime topic for the meetings with Blair, but the rush of events in the Middle East has put that issue on a back burner.
Still, when asked during the ITV interview, Bush said of the Iraqi leader, "I made up my mind that Saddam needs to go."
He said he and Blair would discuss "all options" with respect to Iraq. Long-held U.S. policy is that Saddam should be ousted, but Bush did not say how that might be accomplished.
"Just wait and see," he said.
Bush said he was confident that he can build a coalition to "deal with Saddam Hussein," who he believes aids terrorists and harbors weapons of mass destruction.
Previewing the weekend talks, Blair said things looked grim in the Middle East.
"We will obviously be looking at ideas that can lead to a cease-fire," he told reporters aboard his plane en route to Texas. "There can be few grounds for optimism at the moment."
A rare bright spot, he said: "I don't believe that either the Palestinian Authority or Israel really wish to be in the position they are in at the moment."
In the region on Friday, U.S. mediator Anthony Zinni met with Arafat at his besieged headquarters, even as the region saw its bloodiest day of fighting since the beginning of the week-old Israeli military offensive.
Still, Fleischer withheld criticism of Israel.
"Major events don't necessarily happen overnight," he said. U.S. officials have privately said they were given assurances by Israel that the incursions will soon end.
On Iraq, Blair was expected to press for diplomatic action rather than military steps, and to make Afghanistan and the Middle East higher priorities. He has come under pressure within his own Labor Party to withhold support from Bush.
The visit by Blair, a staunch supporter since the beginning of Bush's presidency, is a welcome event for the president, who has been criticized by some allies and U.S. lawmakers for not doing more to try and stop the Middle East violence.
The visit, once envisioned as a boots-and-barbecue huddle of friends, promised to be a low-key affair because of the Middle East crisis and the death of Britain's Queen Mother.
White House advisers canceled plans to let news cameras show the president and prime minister at play -- fishing or hiking -- on the president's 1,600-acre spread.
The leaders also plan to discuss NATO expansion, the war in Afghanistan and their differences over trade.
© Copyright 2002 Boston Globe Electronic Publishing Inc.