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U.K.: High State Of Alert Prevails On Eve Of Bush Visit

U.S. President George W. Bush is coming to Britain tomorrow for an official four-day state visit. In more normal times, a visit by Britain's most important ally would be welcomed. With the violent aftermath of the Iraq war, which many Britons opposed, however, the situation is tense. With the additional threat of a terrorist attack, the visit has become a security nightmare.

London, 17 November 2003 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. President George W. Bush's itinerary in Britain includes the usual highlights of a head-of-state visit. There will be the picturesque state procession, the inspection of the guard of honor, laying a wreath at the tomb of the unknown soldier, and the Queen's state banquet for 150 guests at Buckingham Palace, where Bush and his wife Laura will stay. Bush will also meet the families of the British soldiers who died in Iraq.

On the last day of the visit, Bush is to fly to Newcastle and tour Blair's parliamentary constituency of Sedgefield. He will visit Blair's relatively modest house, one of the local pubs, an ancient church, and the ancestral home of George Washington.

Despite the official friendly highlights, however, Bush will also face some hostile reactions. Julie Smith heads the European Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs.

"There is a very strong special relationship between the leaders of our two countries, which doesn't always get down to the level of citizens. There is clearly, I think, in the U.K. a good relationship with the average American. But there is still quite a lot of concern in this country about the war in Iraq and the ongoing situation in Iraq, and the sense amongst some that maybe the timing is not quite right for a state visit," Smith said.

This is well illustrated by a recent opinion poll in "The Times." It indicates that support for the Iraq war has fallen from 64 percent in favor at the declared end of the war in May to just 37 percent now.

Many Britons plan to demonstrate against Bush's visit.

One group, the "Stop Bush" campaign, is planning several events, including an "Alternative State Procession" and a large demonstration on 20 November with a march to Trafalgar Square, where they plan to topple a large paper "statue" of the U.S. president. They expect some 100,000 people to take part, while the police estimate some 60,000 may turn up.

The Metropolitan Police is taking security very seriously, as Deputy Assistant Commissioner Andy Trotter told journalists at a briefing.

"This is a state visit and so, obviously, a large-scale security operation, given the high level of alert that London is on at the moment. We'll have about 5,000 police officers on duty for the duration of the visit, and we have canceled all leave for police officers in London, so we can keep the policing numbers in the boroughs up to the appropriate level," Trotter said.

Top police officers, however, say that the antiwar marchers are not their main worry. The high alert -- the highest ever, according to Sir John Stevens, the head of Metropolitan Police -- relates to a secret service warning that "Al-Qaeda terrorists using the cover of huge antiwar protests are a very real threat to the safety of George Bush."

Special police units with machine guns and dogs already patrol the areas around Buckingham Palace, where huge American and British flags adorn the lamp posts, as well as parliament and the U.S. Embassy. What's more, there will be armed undercover officers among the crowds lining the motorcade routes, and precise details of Bush's program are being kept secret.

And there is yet another threat -- of violence and damage to shops and public property, according to the "Daily Mail" newspaper, and other media. It is because hooligans from international antiglobalization and anarchist groups that have just tried to disrupt the European Social Forum in Paris are heading for London.

All these security headaches have allegedly even led to some friction between the British and American security staff. The British side is proud to be in control, as illustrated by an outburst by London Mayor Ken Livingstone. "I would point out that we manage very well. We have not had a prime minister assassinated in this country for 190 years," Livingstone said.

The emotions are obviously flying high, yet Smith of the Royal Institute of International Affairs foresees some benefits stemming from the visit as well.

"I think it is a sensitive time, but I think that there is scope actually for the visit to be positive," she says. "To give the opportunity -- Bush is going to visit the families of those who have been killed -- I think that could be a very positive move. And there is certainly scope during the visit as well for youthful discussions about the future of Iraq. I think that in time that could be beneficial. But I think it will be slightly less comfortable than some state visits have been in the past."

A masterstroke of British understatement? Perhaps.