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Britain Prepares to Greet Bush as Thousands Plan Protests - 2003-11-16

u.S. President George Bush's state visit to Britain this week was conceived as a way to honor him for his leadership in the global war on terrorism, but it has turned into a political and security headache for his British hosts.

When Mr. Bush got his invitation in June 2002 for a state visit to Britain, he was riding a crest of international goodwill in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on the United States nine months earlier.

But there was a sharp turnaround in European public opinion toward the United States shortly after the invitation was sent, as the Bush administration began laying the foundation for the invasion of Iraq.

The upcoming visit of President Bush has fired up the British anti-war movement. Tens of thousands of protesters from across Britain and continental Europe are expected to demonstrate against the president during his four-day visit, which begins Tuesday night.

Among the protest leaders is George Galloway, a member of parliament recently expelled from the ruling Labor Party for having told British soldiers in Iraq they should disobey orders to fight.

"The insult that's being heaped on the British public by this visit is revolting to millions of British people," he said. "And I believe that will be reflected in the demonstration. And the biggest insult of all is the idea that we can be excluded in an exclusion zone from the traditional marching grounds in our own capital city for the comfort of the least welcome foreign visitor since William the Conqueror, a thousand years ago."

For his part, President Bush is taking the threatened protests in stride, saying all mankind should enjoy such freedom.

"I am so pleased to be going to a country, which says that people are allowed to express their mind," said President Bush. "That's fantastic. And freedom is a beautiful thing. I don't expect everybody in the world to agree with the positions I've taken. But certainly those [they] should agree with the goals of the United States, which is peace and freedom."

But the prospect of huge anti-Bush demonstrations could embarrass British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who has been the president's closest ally in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Mr. Blair used his annual foreign policy address to express his irritation at the protesters.

"Protest if you will," said Mr. Blair. "That is your democratic right. Attack the decision to go to war, though have the integrity to realize that without it, these Iraqis now tasting freedom would still be under the lash of Saddam [Hussein], his sons and their henchmen."

Mr. Blair's foreign secretary, Jack Straw, went on British radio to condemn what he called the "fashionable anti-Americanism" of many people in Britain and elsewhere in Europe.

"What people have to decide is whether it is better in our interests and that of European countries for America to be pushed away from Europe and the United Kingdom, to become more and more isolated, or whether we engage in a constructive partnership with the United States, respecting them for what they are, which happens to be the oldest and one of the largest democracies in the world, and a great force much more for good than many people are willing to concede," said Mr. Straw.

During his visit, President Bush will stay at Buckingham Palace as the official guest of Queen Elizabeth. He will be the first American president to do so since Woodrow Wilson in 1918.

But because of the controversy and security threats, President Bush will not enjoy all of the pomp and circumstance of a normal state visit to Britain.

He will skip the traditional ride with the queen in an open, horse-drawn carriage. And he is not scheduled to address parliament, where the anti-war deputies of Mr. Blair's party would likely jeer him.

He will hold talks with the prime minister at his Number 10 Downing Street office. Likely topics include Iraq, the evolving European defense pact, American steel tariffs and the fate of Britons held as suspected terrorists at the U.S. military base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.