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Brown Tries to Shift Bush Talks to Trade and Darfur

Patrick Wintour / Ewen MacAskill

Gordon Brown arrived in Washington last night for his first meeting as prime minister with George Bush, determined to shift the focus from Iraq towards less divisive issues such as trade and Darfur.

Mr Brown, who is scheduled to hold formal talks today with Mr Bush and his team at Camp David, the presidential weekend retreat, praised Mr Bush and commended his leadership in the fight against international terrorism - but failed to mention the war in Iraq.

In a statement to journalists on the plane, Mr Brown said the US-British relationship was founded on common values of liberty, opportunity and the dignity of the individual. "And because of the values we share, the relationship with the United States is not only strong, but can become stronger in the years ahead," he said.

Mr Brown is intent on sustaining a juggling act in which he maintains the alliance with the US while showing it is not as tight as under Tony Blair.

He said he had many friends in America, visited the country frequently and regarded the alliance "as the single most important bilateral relationship that Britain enjoyed". He also singled out Mr Bush's efforts towards achieving a world trade deal and stopping the genocide in Sudan for praise.

Britain is backing a fresh initiative on Darfur, including a UN resolution due to be passed in the next few days that will sanction a 19,000-strong joint UN African Union force going into the Sudanese territory.

Mr Brown has probably been spending more foreign policy time on the issue than any other since he became prime minister, and has in the past few days been in touch with the Chinese leadership as well as President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa.

His plan has been hatched jointly with President Nicolas Sarkozy of France and would require a ceasefire leading to the start of an aid and peace process that is deemed by British officials to have greater chance of success than previous efforts. Mr Brown believes there is strong support in the US for tougher action against Sudan. He also believes an effective international humanitarian action involving the Americans, as well as European countries would help the special relationship.

He is not keen to highlight a conflict between the US and UK on Iraq, arguing there is a natural distinction between the commitment of the two countries troops since the US are based in an area in which the civil war is more intense.

Also on the agenda for the Camp David meeting are Iran and European missile defence. Britain's strained relationship with Russia is not on the agenda.

On the plane, Mr Brown tried to highlight issues other than Iraq, saying the shared values and shared destiny "give strength to work together to face down every challenge ahead - from the danger of nuclear proliferation, global poverty, climate change to today the biggest single and immediate challenge the world has to defeat, global terrorism".

Tomorrow Mr Brown will travel to the UN, where he is to meet the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon.

The shadow foreign secretary, William Hague, told the BBC the prime minister needed to set a clear stance.

He said: "They should not be leaving it to more junior ministers to create misunderstandings about the relationship with America..."

Guardian Unlimited © Guardian News and Media Limited 2007

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