Why George no longer loves Tony

John Kampfner, our political editor, reveals that Iraq has brought the UK and US leaders perilously

Tony Blair vowed from the beginning of the "war on terror" to stand by his man, George W Bush. Now the strains are showing. As the haggling continues at the United Nations to find a resolution that will give weapons inspectors what they need to locate and destroy Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction, officials in London and Washington have revealed to me a succession of serious disagreements over the past fortnight between Downing Street and the US administration.

"The action at the UN in New York is very real. There's some knock-down stuff going on. Some cosmic arguments are taking place," says one administration official.

Blair had a unique selling point. The Prime Minister would stand shoulder to shoulder with Bush against Saddam, while delivering a cleverer US foreign policy, restraining the belligerents around Bush - Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld. After a dangerous summer, when the vice-president and defence secretary used the holiday vacuum to make warmongering speeches, it looked by September as if the Blair strategy had begun to pay dividends. His biggest success was to persuade Bush to give the UN one last chance to sort out Iraq before America did it alone. Now, as Bush talks up war again, the hawks have struck back and Blair stands exposed.

The problems, according to British officials, began when the administration (they presume it was Rumsfeld's lot) leaked a draft UN Security Council resolution. The timing - during the Labour conference - couldn't have been worse. Behind the scenes in Blackpool, as one aide put it, the volume of phone traffic was "frenetic".

Blair, his foreign policy chief, Sir David Manning, and the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, were in constant touch with the British ambassador to the UN, Sir Jeremy Greenstock. For all the talk of this being a joint US-UK declaration, the hands of the hawks in Washington were all over it. A US administration official told me: "Sure, the British proposals informed the draft, but by the time we got to write it, there wasn't a whole lot of Blair in it. This was made in the USA."

Blair had always wanted a very tough resolution - one that bore little resemblance to the original UN Resolution 1284 and one that made clear to Saddam that the inspectors must have unfettered access across the country, including presidential palaces. On that there was a complete meeting of minds with Bush. However, the British wanted the document to be framed in a way that would give the Iraqi president a reason to comply, rather than face a full-scale military attack. Instead, what was on offer was, as one Whitehall official put it to me, "the choice between 'allow us to invade you or we'll invade you'".

According to Whitehall insiders, the draft could have been even worse and "elements" in earlier drafts had spoken more clearly about "regime change" rather than the need to destroy Saddam's chemical and biological weapons capability. As one put it to me: "The last thing we wanted was wording which could be seen as a pretext for war. We've been at times very close to it."

Several points in the published document were of particular concern to the British - the stipulation that the inspection team could be joined by experts from "any permanent member of the Security Council" (for that, read the Americans); the idea that the inspectors and/or the Americans "may at their discretion conduct interviews inside or outside Iraq" (allowing them to take anyone out of the country for interrogation about anything connected with Saddam's arms programme); and, most crucially, that any breach of compliance by Iraq "authorises member states to use all necessary means to restore international peace and security in the area".

The French and the Russians, whom Blair desperately sought to sign up to a resolution, have made clear their opposition to what is called in UN-speak "automaticity" - a single resolution linking the inspections to war.

Having supported the automatic link earlier, Blair is now cooling and moving towards the French idea of two resolutions - one setting the conditions for compliance and warning in broad terms about the consequences of failure; and a second resolution authorising military action, to be issued only if the inspectors returned home unsuccessful. In Downing Street and the Foreign Office, they have an "open mind" and claim they are "not theological" about it, but they are adamant that the inspection team must be given the time and authority needed to do its job properly.

This is another point of contention. The British suspect the Rumsfeld-Cheney axis is trying to undermine the credibility of the head of the inspection team, Hans Blix. Conservative commentators in the US and UK are being encouraged to write pieces suggesting that the elderly Swedish diplomat doesn't have what it takes to confront the canny Saddam, that he will roll over the first time an obstacle is put in his way.

"The people doing the briefing are the same people who didn't want Bush to go to the UN in the first place," says one member of the UK government. "For us, the test in all of this is to give Blix what he needs to do the job. He's a good guy. We have to give him a resolution that is very tough and serious but that is workable as well, not one that is just an excuse for conflict."

Blix didn't do himself any favours, in London or in Washington, by rushing to announce his deal with the Iraqi delegation at the UN last month, reinforcing the doubters' impression that he was negotiating with Saddam's representatives rather than informing them of his terms. The Americans ordered him to slow down and to announce that he would not go to Baghdad before a resolution was ready. And that could now take longer than was thought. "We're in no tearing hurry," says one British official. "If it takes a few weeks to get it right, so be it."

As he works on President Putin during his quick trip to Moscow, Blair has given himself the difficult balancing act of persuading the Russians and the French (the Chinese are seen as likely to abstain) that Bush is committed to giving the inspectors a real chance, and persuading Bush not to listen to his hawks.

Those hawks are increasingly resentful of Blair's role. There was scarcely contained irritation when the Prime Minister used his Labour conference speech to try to coax the White House into kick-starting the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. It wasn't just that Blair sought to impose a deadline ("by this year's end, we must have revived final status negotiations"); there was barely veiled criticism of the US administration ("Some say the issue is Iraq. Some say it is the Middle East peace process. It's both").

Bush, I'm told, let it be known to Blair that he was unhappy not just at the content of the Middle East section of the speech but that he wasn't told about it in advance. That is confirmed by the British. "Tony was trying to inject momentum," says one aide. "He has a high threshold of ambition on this one. Was this said with the full knowledge and backing of Washington? No, it wasn't."

With the opinion polls showing continued low support for military action against Saddam, Blair was keen to win over doubters in the Labour Party and the public at large. But he didn't need to go as far as he did on the Middle East. He also knows that alone, he can do very little. The British have little clout with Ariel Sharon and the Israeli government. Blair didn't forget to tell Bush. He wanted very deliberately to make a point.

It was noted. And while Bill Clinton's rapturous reception and jibes at Bush didn't help - the Prime Minister rushed to the phone to reassure the president straight afterwards - it was Blair's own utterances that irked the most. "He was using his party's forum to apply pressure on us. It'll pass, but let's just say it hasn't improved matters," says one Washington official.

Blair has staked so much on influencing Bush. He knows he cannot go too far, and in the past fortnight he has probably gone as far as he thinks he can. His cause wasn't helped when the New York Times listed him as one of the three most important doves, putting him alongside Colin Powell, the increasingly marginalised US secretary of state, and Senator John McCain, a rival candidate in the presidential primaries last time around and Bush's most prominent Republican critic.

According to diplomats in London and Washington, the resolution has already undergone several changes since the original draft was published - changes apparently more to the liking of the British, and more likely to get the French and Russians on board. But such is the flow of paperwork, so quickly is the wording changing, that Blair won't know until the very end what Bush will settle for.

The military preparations, meanwhile, are continuing apace. The time-frame for any full-scale invasion is the Iraqi winter, January to March. For the rest of the year, it will be too hot for soldiers to operate in suits that are designed to withstand chemical attack.

Blair's people are preparing for war, hoping that it won't come to it. In his speech on 7 October, Bush told the American people that Saddam was "a homicidal dictator who is addicted to weapons of mass destruction". There was, the president said, no time to lose. "We cannot wait for the final proof - the smoking gun - that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud." The speech leaves Bush's options open. He is playing Rumsfeld and Cheney's thirst for combat off against Blair and Powell's entreaties to give the UN, the inspectors and Blix a chance.

"This is high stakes for your Prime Minister," says one State Department supporter of Blair's. "So far, he's done marvellously well in gaining and keeping the president's ear. But if he loses it and if the process goes sour, Blair will be placed in a very difficult position. Bush could simply walk away from the UN and fight a war, but it is Blair who has gambled most and who has most to lose."

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