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Britain Links Its Support of US Against Iraq to Help on Belfast

Blair sees Clinton Thursday. Sources say he wants stronger US hand in Northern Ireland.

President Clinton is getting solid support from Britain over Iraq and his personal problems - but he will likely have to pay a price later this year.

Prime Minister Tony Blair flies to Washington Wednesday for his first talks as British leader with Mr. Clinton. Senior British government sources say the prime minister is calculating that in return for standing firm against Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and offering sympathy to the beleaguered US leader over allegations of misconduct, he can expect American help on Northern Ireland.

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During the 1991 Gulf War, British air and Army units played a major role in the successful bid to make Iraq remove its forces from Kuwait. At that time, the closeness of US-British cooperation reawakened talk of a "special relationship" between Washington and London.

Now, Blair appears to be playing the same card in the hope that he can invoke American help in striking a compromise between Northern Ireland's opposing nationalist and unionist groups.

With peace talks at a critical stage, and the May deadline for a satisfactory outcome looming, Downing Street officials see a last-minute intervention by Clinton as likely to be crucial.

The British and Irish governments have said that if the parties to the peace talks do not reach agreement by May, the issue of peace in Northern Ireland will be put to referendums in both parts of Ireland.

An intervention by the US president at that time would likely sway many voters to support a peace settlement.

British government policy on Iraq and Northern Ireland is being coordinated by senior members of Mr. Blair's staff.

A British Foreign Office source says there was "no direct trade-off" between the government's support for Clinton and "anything he may do to help" over Northern Ireland, but added, "Blair and the president are very close, and both want successful outcomes in both places."

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During the first cease-fire in Northern Ireland four years ago, the Clinton administration worked hard to foster progress in the peace process. Efforts included a presidential visit to the province.

Virtually alone among world leaders, Blair has offered help to the Clinton administration if it decides to carry out air strikes against Iraq.

After weekend talks in London with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, he spoke of Saddam Hussein as an "evil dictator" who posed a fundamental challenge to world peace and promised British help in enforcing United Nations demands for its inspectors to be allowed to enter suspected Iraqi weapons installations.

British Defense Secretary George Robertson has ordered the British aircraft carrier Invincible to stand by in the Persian Gulf. It carries 14 Harrier jets of the type used in bombing raids during the Gulf War.

On Saturday, Ms. Albright and British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook said they were committed to the search for a diplomatic solution on Iraq, but after two hours of talks both said they saw little chance of that happening.

And last week, as political pressures on Clinton mounted, Blair made several personal telephone calls to the president. Government sources said that as well as discussing Iraq and the misconduct allegations, the two leaders talked about the latest British initiative aimed at clearing the path to a Northern Ireland political settlement.

Responding to pressure from the Irish government and from Northern Ireland nationalists, Blair on Thursday ordered three judges to conduct a new inquiry into "Bloody Sunday." In the incident 26 years ago, 14 Catholic marchers were fatally shot by British security forces in Londonderry.

The Clinton administration has long favored such an inquiry, as well as an official British apology, if the findings substantiate claims that the marchers were victims of an unprovoked attack.

British officials, ahead of Blair's trip to Washington this week, recalled that Clinton and the prime minister have a close personal relationship. As leader of the opposition, Blair visited Washington five years ago. His general election campaign, which resulted in a sweeping victory last May, was closely modeled on Clinton campaign techniques.

London's Sunday Telegraph reported yesterday that Blair will spend more time with the president than has been accorded any British leader on a White House visit for many years.

The two men plan an informal tour of Washington followed by a question-and-answer session with members of the public.

The Telegraph commented, "Blair will stand at Clinton's side, acting as a sleaze-free human shield."

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