Originally planned as a glittering toast to the Anglo-American partnership, President Bush's three-day state visit to Britain next week threatens to produce far less salutary scenes of antiwar protesters battling police and walls of security keeping demonstrators away from the guest of honor.
Tensions have risen in London ahead of the visit, with protesters saying police have already warned that access to Bush events will be severely restricted.
Although British police and American officials cite security concerns for plans to create extensive police cordons, critics say the moves are designed to ensure that dissenters are kept far out of the president's earshot and well out of media images of the ceremonies.
Antiwar protesters warned Tuesday that any attempt to bar them from getting their message to Bush could lead to violence.
"The danger is you up the stakes if demonstrators are not allowed to go where they want to," said Lindsey German, convener of the Stop the War Coalition, which estimates that 60,000 to 100,000 people will take to the streets. "There will be conflict."
Police acknowledge that they are stuck between the need to protect Bush and the awareness that too tight a clampdown would limit civil rights of assembly and could spark a violent backlash.
John Stevens, Britain's senior law enforcement officer, told the BBC this week that he knows police "must make sure we get the balance right when President Bush comes."
Some protesters say they see the hand of the U.S. administration in the strict security arrangements. "I don't believe the White House should be able to dictate where people can demonstrate in London," German said.
London Mayor Ken Livingstone, a leading antiwar campaigner, said it would be "inconceivable" to try to keep protesters completely away from the president. "We have not had a prime minister assassinated in this country for 190 years," he told a news conference Tuesday. "Some absolute monsters have come to this country. They have always been protected.
"I think the Americans should pay attention, because we know our city best," Livingstone said.
The issue is particularly sensitive for Prime Minister Tony Blair's government, which drew similar criticism during Chinese President Jiang Zemin's visit in 1999. Police grappled with protesters in an attempt to keep them from holding up Tibetan flags as Jiang traveled through central London. Britain's Foreign Office was subsequently accused of ordering police to ensure that demonstrators did not intrude, an allegation it denies.
Burned by the experience, the Foreign Office insists that its officials are leaving Bush's protection to the police and the White House. American security officials have been in Britain since last week.
Though the police have yet to announce just how wide a swath of central London they plan to declare off-limits to the public, Bush's itinerary has already been crimped.
Normally a peacock of royal pageantry, state visits to Britain are three-day visual banquets of clinking crystal, bugle-blowing honor guards and processions heavy on the horses and gold-encrusted carriages.
Bush is the 11th U.S. president to be invited to Britain but the first to be granted the arcane distinction of having a state visit. Yet American officials say neither the White House nor the British government ever seriously considered allowing an open-carriage procession up Pall Mall to Buckingham Palace, the traditional welcome for visiting heads of state. And the president will not address Parliament, as Ronald Reagan did in 1982.
Bush will stay with Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace, as protocol dictates. But officials are being coy about most other details, reluctant to announce the locations of the two state banquets that will take place. (Privately, they say the queen will play host to Bush at the 17th century Banqueting House in central London, where the president will deliver his only speech of the visit, and Bush will play host at the traditional return banquet at Winfield House, home of U.S. Ambassador William Farish.)
Planned for a year, the president's visit comes at an awkward time for Blair. In a Times of London poll published Tuesday, just 40% of those surveyed said Blair's relationship with Bush was "good for Britain." Respondents were critical of the American leader's handling of the Iraq war by a 3-1 margin.
Blair has given little outward sign of being unsettled by the ruckus.
"For many, the script of the visit has already been written," he said in a speech Monday in which he defended the decision to invite Bush. "There will be demonstrations. His friends wonder at the timing. His enemies rub their hands at what they see as the potential embarrassment."
But, said the prime minister, "I believe this is exactly the right time for him to come."
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Britons on the Bush visit
* Prime Minister Tony Blair: "Protest if you will, that is your democratic right. Attack the decision to go to war, though have the integrity to realize that without it, those Iraqis now tasting freedom would still be under the lash of Saddam, his sons and their henchmen."
* Lindsey German, convener of the Stop the War Coalition: "People are energized, and with good reason. This is nothing against Americans. At the same time, we hope Americans will see that their president is so unpopular here, even among his closest allies, that it'll drive home how he's seen around the world."
* John Stevens, commissioner of the London Metropolitan Police: "We are at the highest alert we have ever been at. We are working more than 2 1/2 times harder than we did at the very height of the Irish terrorism campaign."
Sources: Associated Press, Baltimore Sun
Los Angeles Times