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SHOWDOWN WITH IRAQ

Bush's Blarney Stone Is a Phone

The president skips a St. Patrick's Day tradition to press foreign leaders on U.N. resolution.

March 14, 2003|James Gerstenzang | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The motorcade of more than a dozen cars and vans was in position, with the limousine and its nearly identical decoy at the front, perhaps 50 paces down the flagstone path from the Oval Office. President Bush had knotted a bright green tie for the occasion.

But then the president, a stickler for holding to his calendar of events, did the unthinkable: At the last minute, he canceled an appointment.

It was a social occasion, but one steeped in tradition, in which a passel of politicians put aside partisanship. Bush skipped the "Shamrock Luncheon" at the Capitol, dispatching Vice President Dick Cheney in his place to celebrate St. Patrick's Day -- typically early, in Bush fashion.

The president stayed in the Oval Office, aides said, to telephone foreign leaders to promote a new United Nations resolution on Iraq.

In the White House press briefing room and in hearings on Capitol Hill, administration officials signaled that the United States had blinked on its demand that the United Nations vote no later than this week on a resolution authorizing the use of force to disarm Iraq. The president had work to do.

And if it wasn't enough that he passed up crab cakes and beef tenderloin with House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Prime Minister Bertie Ahern of Ireland and a group of Irish and Irish American politicians, it was to the British prime minister that he turned his attention instead.

A senior White House official said Bush had decided "it would be a more productive use of his time" to talk with Tony Blair.

The British prime minister has been Bush's most steadfast ally in trying to assemble a coalition to force Iraq to disarm. Now Blair is struggling against opposition within his own Labor Party. Together, he and Bush are tackling the task of lining up support at the U.N. Security Council.

So the call, which was not entirely unexpected, went out to Cheney to schmooze the members of Congress -- Democrats and Republicans -- and to take in with them a performance of the Saw Doctors, an Irish rock group, along with an Irish step-dancing troupe.

Meanwhile, administration officials were left wrestling with another shift -- one at the heart of the U.S. and British diplomatic efforts.

For days, the Bush administration had insisted that the United States would not support any Security Council resolution giving Iraq beyond March 17 to comply with the council's disarmament demands. It was demanding a council vote on a resolution by today.

But with little fanfare, White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer made it clear first thing Thursday that the administration was not necessarily demanding an immediate vote.

"The diplomatic process is underway. It may conclude tomorrow. It may continue into next week," he said.

As diplomacy seems to near a denouement, Bush has rarely left the White House. He has appeared before cameras only twice in the last eight days.

He held a news conference -- his first in four months -- eight days ago. On Thursday, cameras captured a brief exchange of remarks when Ahern called on him at the White House for a St. Patrick's Day tradition: the presentation of a bowl of shamrocks by the Irish taoiseach to the president of the United States.

The White House explanation for the shift in travel plans notwithstanding, one Republican strategist suspected something else was at play.

"They don't want to put him out there with the chance he'd take a shouted question. I really think they've buttoned him down," he said.

But Fleischer, announcing the call to Blair, said, "The president is working on the situation vis-a-vis Iraq and the diplomacy, and he wanted to make the phone call that I just reported to you."

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Times staff writer Robin Wright contributed to this report.

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