British-US Tie Loosens over Iraq ; Blair, Bush Meeting Friday Shadowed by Bin Laden Tape, Murder of Italian

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Two weeks of kidnapping, mayhem, and carnage in Iraq, which has provoked a muscular US military response, has also drawn a deeper divide in US-European relations. Even with America's chief ally, Britain.

As Prime Minister Tony Blair arrives in Washington Friday for his first tete-a-tete with President Bush in five months, experts say that clear differences on peacekeeping and nation-building are likely to be expressed.

The slaughter of an Italian hostage Wednesday - the first known murder of dozens of foreigners believed to be kidnapped in the country - serves as a brutal reminder of the pressure on US allies in Iraq. The meeting Firday is also likely to be overshadowed by a purported Osama bin Laden tape, aired on Arab satellite networks Thursday, calling for a "truce" with Europe if it pulls its troops out of Islamic nations.

Britain, Germany, Italy, and Spain dismissed the tape as an effort to distance Europe further from the US; Italy and Britain said they would not flinch from Iraq. But as Mr. Blair and Mr. Bush discuss the planned June 30 sovereignty handover, Britain's prime minister is likely to express concern that the US military approach could have grave implications for reconciliation, reconstruction, and sovereignty transfer.

"Behind the scenes there are quite a lot of misgivings in the Blair camp about the direction things are going in Iraq," says David Mepham, a former government adviser and head of the international program at the London-based Institute for Public Policy Research, a progressive think-tank. "Publicly they will say there's not a matchstick between us, but privately there are differences."

A robust US response to the Sunni and Shiite uprisings, which has left hundreds dead, has unsettled British military and political chiefs, who fret that it will alienate locals and the international community, both of whom are vital to the success of Iraqi transition.

"The Americans will find it very hard to institute democratic governance in Iraq if they are increasingly seen as the enemy of the Iraqi people, and that's what happens when civilians are killed on the battlefield," says Christopher Langton, who heads the defense analysis department at the London-based Institute for International Strategic Studies. "Once you are seen as the adversary it becomes harder and harder to persuade people that you are a force for good."

Officially, Downing Street denies major differences between the two allies, insisting that both want to stick to the June 30 timetable and secure greater UN involvement.

"We are in agreement with the US about the overall strategy in Iraq," says a Blair spokesman, noting that commanders - British and American - must be free to make decisions on the ground as situations arise.

Yet US and British commanders have done this in distinct ways in Iraq. From the early days soon after the war was over, British troops quickly swapped helmets for berets and armored vehicles for foot patrols. True, they had the more tranquil south to deal with, while the Americans grappled with the restive Sunni triangle, but experts say there was more to it than that. …