A SENIOR Downing Street aide has sounded out Washington on the possibility of an early British military withdrawal from Iraq.
Brown, who arrives at Camp David in Maryland today to meet President George W Bush, said yesterday that "the relationship with the United States is our single most important bilateral relationship".
Downing Street remains emphatic that he will not unveil a plan to withdraw British troops, who are due to remain in southern Iraq until the Iraqi army is deemed capable of maintaining security. A spokesman said there had been no change in the government's position.
Behind the scenes, however, American officials are picking up what they believe are signals that a change of British policy on Iraq is imminent.
McDonald, a senior diplomat who formerly ran the Iraq desk at the Foreign Office, was in Washington this month to prepare for the summit. He asked a select group of US foreign policy experts what they believed the effect would be of a British pull-out from Iraq.
"The general feeling was that he was doing the groundwork for a Brown conversation," said a source. Most of the experts felt it was a question of when, not if, Britain would leave.
"The view is Britain feels it can't fight two wars, and Afghanistan is more worth fighting for," added the source. Yesterday a British soldier was killed during a rocket attack in Afghanistan, bringing to 67 the number of British fatalities there.
McDonald's questions, coming in the wake of remarks by Douglas Alexander, the international development secretary, about the use of American power, and the appointment of Lord Malloch-Brown, a critic of US policy, as a Foreign Office minister, were seen by some in Washington as another signal that Brown is distancing himself from Iraq.
Malloch-Brown, in particular, arouses strong emotions. Critics within the Bush administration have long viewed the former UN deputy secretary-general with suspicion and were annoyed when he said last month Britain and America would no longer be "joined at the hip".
A former UN official, Artjon Shkurtaj, has now accused him of turning a blind eye to corruption and mismanagement at the United Nations programme he ran for six years.
Shkurtaj lost his job after claiming that rules designed to prevent corruption were being breached in the North Korean offices of the UN Development Programme. Some UN insiders have, however, accused Shkurtaj of being an American "stooge", manipulated by Washington to embarrass Malloch-Brown.
Henry Kissinger, the former US secretary of state, has warned British ministers to beware of distancing themselves from America.
"Ostentatious dissociation from the US just sets up a quarrel," he said in an interview with The Sunday Times.
He added that Brown had qualities that could be "very helpful" to the president in resolving the Iraq problem. "Gordon Brown is an extremely thoughtful person with a more intellectual approach than Tony Blair," said Kissinger. "President Bush has not invited him to Camp David to lecture him on how Britain can fit in with America's wishes. He will listen to him with an open mind."
Brown visited Iraq last month to discuss the situation there with Lieutenant-General Graeme Lamb, the coalition deputy commander and overall UK commander, and Major-General Jonathan Shaw, the commander in the south.
Army chiefs make no secret of their desire to withdraw. British troops are under virtual siege in Basra with four servicemen killed in the past two weeks by mortar or rocket attacks on their two bases. Most are in tents with no overhead protection.
Shaw has drawn up a proposal - backed by Lamb - under which the bulk of the British troops could be withdrawn by the end of the year or early next year, leaving only small training teams. They are due to withdraw to a single base at Basra airport by the end of this month.
Bob Ainsworth, the armed forces minister, told MPs last week that the local Iraqi military commander believed his force was "approaching the point" where it could take over responsibility.
"There is hope among our people out there at every level that we are approaching the situation where that can be done. But we have got to talk to our allies and to the Iraqi government about that. That cannot be a unilateral decision on our part," he said.
In contrast with the famous "Colgate summit" - at which Bush told the press he and Blair shared the same brand of toothpaste - no walkabouts or matey photo-opportunities are expected when the president meets the new prime minister.
"President Bush and prime minister Brown don't need a photo-opportunity of the two of them heading off into the sunset holding hands to prove that the US-UK relationship is as strong as ever," a British official said.
Brown will have a one-to-one dinner with Bush tonight and they will meet again without aides for breakfast tomorrow.
A Whitehall source said: "It will be more businesslike now, with less emphasis on the meeting of personal visions you had with Bush and Blair."
© 2007 The Time Newspaper Company