ON THE second leg of a bruising Middle East tour, Tony Blair attempted last night to ease concerns in Saudi Arabia over the war in Afghanistan.
"People understand that, when so many thousands of people are slaughtered in cold blood in the way they were, we have to bring to account those responsible," he said after talks with King Fahd and before separate talks with Crown Prince Abdullah, who runs the day- to-day affairs of the kingdom.
The Prime Minister earlier had received the diplomatic equivalent of a mauling at a tense joint press conference in Damascus with the Syrian President, Bashar Assad.
The media event in a cavernous hall of the presidential palace was far from a success. After initial bromides from each leader about the need for engagement, it became clear that what officials had termed the "candid dialogue" of their one-and-a-half-hour meeting was about to spill into public view.
Mr Blair shifted uneasily on the spot as President Assad launched into a comprehensive condemnation of Israeli "terrorism", attacked the hundreds of civilian casualties in Afghanistan, and even compared Palestinian power groups to the Free French in the Second World War.
Mr Assad said: "Israel, as far as we are concerned, is proving every day that it is against peace and, therefore, the desire for peace cannot coincide with their desire for killing."
Mr Blair was remarkably unruffled by the half-hour event, shrugging off the President's remarks with a knowing smile that suggested he had been given a much more emollient line in private.
Mr Blair told his entourage that he was entirely unsurprised by the President's strong language on Israel and on the military strikes on Afghanistan, preferring to point out that the fact that the trip had happened at all was proof of a possible new era of engagement between Syria and the UK. President Assad, a former ophthalmologist who worked in London and married a British-educated Syrian, was seen by Downing Street as having a predisposition in favour of British culture and an understanding of the West's perspective. …