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Rice's friendly gesture becomes tabloids' fodder

LONDON -- The British tabloids rapped Foreign Secretary Jack Straw yesterday for ungentlemanly conduct in what one newspaper is calling ''Bedgate."

When it came time to grab a few hours rest before landing on a secret mission in Baghdad last weekend, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice insisted that Straw take the bed in the private cabin in her aircraft. Straw accepted, but was horrified when he woke up to find Rice, one of the world's most powerful women, had slept on the floor so that her guest was more comfortable.

Rice's considerate gesture reflects a growing friendship between the two and their bid to work even more closely together on issues such as Iran, Iraq, and the Middle East, political analysts say.

That personal chemistry did not always win over others in five days of diplomatic bonding that took the top diplomats to Straw's hometown of Blackburn and then to Iraq. In Blackburn, antiwar demonstrators were waiting at each stop to protest the US-led invasion of Iraq where the United States still has 130,000 troops and Britain has 8,000.

While relatively few in number, the protesters stole the spotlight from what was intended to show the special relationship between the United States and Britain, mirroring a visit by Straw to Rice's home state of Alabama last year.

Straw joked at their final news conference in Blackburn that he could have done a better job organizing the protests, to which Rice replied: ''I'm glad you didn't."

The aim of the Blackburn trip was to show Rice another part of England beyond the corridors of power in London. But while the couple visited a school, attended a concert, and toured the stadium of Straw's favorite soccer team, their staff were putting together a joint trip to Baghdad.

The two slipped away from a party in Liverpool where Rice was officially meant to be spending the night and took off to Baghdad to try to prod belligerent Iraqi leaders to form a national unity government.

Rice boarded at the front of her plane while Straw sneaked in at the back entrance used more frequently by reporters. After planning their strategy in Iraq, Rice offered her pull-out bed to Straw.

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