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Leaders from US, Britain, Spain Discuss Iraq in Azores Summit - 2003-03-16


The Azores is a normally quiet Portuguese island chain in the mid-Atlantic. But Sunday it has become the center of world focus, as the leaders of the United States, Britain and Spain gather there for a summit on the Iraq crisis.

If U.S. President George W. Bush, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar thought they could avoid provoking the anti-war movement by holding their summit in the remote Azores chain, they were wrong.

As the leaders prepared to meet at a high security air force base, a 100-car caravan of anti-war protesters snaked through the narrow cobblestone streets of the island's main town, Angra do Heroismo.

About 20 kilometers away, security is tight at the Lajes Air Force Base, the venue of the summit.

Passengers arriving at the civilian side of the airfield had to show identification and undergo questioning by Portuguese security agents.

Offshore, two Portuguese navy ships patrolled the waters near the base.

The U.S. air force had more than a dozen planes parked at Lajes Sunday. The base serves as a major refueling and maintenance center for military flights between the United States, Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. If there were an invasion of Iraq, Lajes could have a big role to play.

The summit leaders insist they have not yet given up on diplomacy in the Iraq crisis. As British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw told British radio, war is closer, but not certain.

"The prospect of military action is now much more probable. And I greatly regret that. But it is not inevitable. And it is not the case that either President Bush or Prime Minister Blair and his Cabinet or anybody else has made a decision to take military action. What we are seeking to do, still, is to pursue this by diplomatic means," Mr. Straw said.

The Azores summit is seen as being particularly crucial for Britain's Tony Blair, who faces threats of ministerial resignations and a revolt within his Labor Party over his hard-line on Iraq.

The last time Terceira held such a major summit was in 1971, when then-U.S. President Richard Nixon met his counter-parts from France and Portugal to discuss an international monetary crisis.

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