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Sunday, August 22, 2004

Sunday Mirror.Co UK > DON'T MEDAL Blair snubs Bush's war honour invite

Aug 22 2004

Exclusive by Paul Gilfeather Political Editor

TONY Blair has snubbed George Bush's pleas to fly to the US and pick up his "war medal" ahead of the Presidential elections.

The US President knows the PM, who is massively popular in the States, would provide his flagging re-election campaign with a much-needed boost.

And he is putting huge pressure on Mr Blair to pick up the Congressional Medal of Honor, awarded by America for his unswerving support in Afghanistan and Iraq.

But Mr Blair's closest aides have warned him to resist the plan, insisting that a meeting with President Bush would torpedo Democrat rival John Kerry's bid for the White House.

A senior Government source said: "There has been a lot of telephone traffic between the White House and Downing Street over the medal in recent weeks. George Bush wants the Prime Minister to come to Washington and pick up the medal, which is the highest honour America can bestow on a foreigner.

"But he has refused for more than a year now and for good reason. He cannot possibly accept an award for the Iraq War when British and American troops continue to risk their lives there.

"The Democrats are watching the situation very carefully and there would be uproar if Tony travelled to Washington to meet Bush so close to the Presidential elections.

"But Bush isn't letting up. The White House has already let it be known that they feel slighted because of this and believe they can use this to put pressure on Blair to get him out there."

Number 10 is desperate to finally end Mr Blair's Iraq nightmare - which saw his personal poll rating plunge to all-time low.

Labour also suffered heavily at the ballot box over the conflict taking massive hits in the local and European elections.

One attempt to turn the crisis round was inviting the new Iraqi premier Iyad Allawi to be the keynote speaker at this year's Labour conference. But that appeared to fall through this week amid massive protests.

Mark Seddon, a member of the party's ruling National Executive Committee, said there would be a walk-out if Mr Allawi was invited to speak. He added: "A lot of us said at our last meeting we wanted John Kerry to win the Presidential election. We should be inviting the Democrats to our conference, not Allawi."

Mr Blair has deliberately kept out of the Presidential race to the fury of Labour backbenchers. They are desperate to get a Democrat back in the White House. Democrats, Labour's political bedfellows across the Atlantic, are also bewildered at Mr Blair's attitude.

Bush and Kerry are currently neck-and-neck in the US Presidential race. Mr Blair has been dodging the Congressional Medal since it was awarded a year ago.

He was due to receive it in Washington but following intense negotiations the ceremony was scrapped. He is now not expected to pick up the award until he leaves Downing Street.

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