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Bush & Blair: Country Gentlemen

A plainclothes Pakistani police officer examines the site after a suicide bombing in lawmaker Shamsher Khan's house in Dherai near Mingora, the main of town of Pakistan's Swat Valley, Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2009. A teenage suicide bomber killed Shamsher Khan, an anti-Taliban lawmaker, in his house in Pakistan's Swat Valley, showing the militant threat in the region remains months after a military push there was declared a success. (AP Photo/Sherin Zada)
AP Photo/Sherin Zada
President Bush is trading the pomp, pageantry and protests of London for Tony Blair's home in tranquil northeast England.

By taking Blair up on the rare invitation to visit Sedgefield, Bush was looking to decompress a bit after two intense days in London. Tea at Blair's house, lunch at a pub and a school visit were on the schedule.

While Bush was in London, he gave a foreign policy speech defending the Iraq war; was jeered by tens of thousands of protesters; was the star of a state dinner at Buckingham Palace; met with relatives of British victims of Sept. 11 and of British soldiers killed in Iraq; and faced sharp questioning at a news conference with Blair just after terrorist bombs in Istanbul exploded at a London-based bank and the British consulate.

Bush and his wife, Laura, left Buckingham Palace, where they had stayed three nights, just before 10 a.m. Friday (5 a.m. ET) on a drizzly London morning. They were escorted to the Lawn by Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip to an awaiting helicopter.

"Thank you, sir. I appreciated it," Bush said to the prince.

During the two leaders' joint appearance Thursday, Blair said the attack in Turkey could not be blamed on Bush's visit, nor the U.S.-British alliance. Bush and Blair said the attacks would only strengthen U.S. resolve in Iraq.

Al Qaeda was widely blamed for the attacks in Istanbul. The Times of London noted in its editions Friday that one of the Turkey blasts, the one that hit the British Consulate, was the first direct al Qaeda strike against Britain.

Bush also appeared to raise the possibility that more U.S. troops might be sent.

"We could have less troops in Iraq, we could have the same number of troops in Iraq, we can have more troops in Iraq," Bush said when asked about U.S. troop levels. "Whatever is necessary to secure Iraq."

Aides quickly denied that the president was signaling a change in the Pentagon plan to reduce troops to 105,000 by May from the current 131,600. There are 9,000 British troops in Iraq.

Bush's London itinerary kept him walled off from ordinary citizens, but Friday's stroll through Sedgefield was intended to give him that kind of contact, or at least create the appearance of doing so.

Bush, Blair and their wives were having tea at Blair's four-bedroom red brick Victorian house, named Myrobella. Then the foursome was heading to the Dun Cow Inn, a pub. Bush doesn't drink alcohol, having quit about 15 years ago.

Sedgefield is a town of 5,000 in an old coal-mining region with a handful of pubs, a few takeout restaurants, a stone church and a main street that runs about a quarter mile from end to end.

Bush planned to visit a school in the town.

The invitation was Blair's way of repaying Bush for several visits to Camp David, the presidential retreat in Maryland, and to Crawford, Texas, where Bush owns a ranch.

Bush has invited a series of foreign leaders to the ranch, but Blair rarely brings overseas counterparts to Sedgefield. Lionel Jospin, who was then France's prime minister, did join Blair at a Sedgefield pub in 1998.

Blair has represented Sedgefield in Parliament for 20 years and has a home in Trimdon Colliery, a village a few miles outside Sedgefield.

His house sits behind a high fence and across a narrow street from a dilapidated shed and field full of goats and sheep. Nearby are rows of narrow houses, their paint peeling.

It's a world away from the palace. Mrs. Bush said she was awe-struck walking the halls and took mental notes for her next state dinner.

The royal family tried to make the Bushes feel at ease, she said.

The first lady said she and her husband were nonplussed by the tens of thousands of protesters who demonstrated against the war while Bush was here — most of whom the couple never saw. Police said the massive march and rally mobilized between 100,000 and 110,000 people.

"I don't think the protests are near as large as everyone was predicting before we got there," Mrs. Bush said. "We've seen plenty of American flags, we've seen plenty of people who were waving to us — many, many more people, in fact, than we've seen protesters."

Demonstrators in London tore down an enormous statue of Bush on Thursday to show their anger for the Iraq war and Blair's support of the invasion. Some carried signs reading "Thank God There's No Oil In England."

The president was due back in Washington on Friday evening.