By JOHN ARMSTRONG political editor

At first glance, it must have looked like just another tatty piece of cloth.

But something about the dark-blue fabric poking out of the rubble attracted the attention of a diligent New York police officer scouring the ruins of the World Trade Centre on a chill winter's day this year.

The officer took it home, identified it and then handed it to the New Zealand consulate in New York.

Staff were staggered by the find - a ripped and battered New Zealand flag. It will now add a highly poignant touch to the Prime Minister's visit to the United States next week.

The flag will be formally presented to Helen Clark by the New York Police Department in a short ceremony when she visits "Ground Zero" after two days of the highest-level talks in Washington, including a 30-minute meeting with President George W. Bush.

The meeting will effectively end a long period in the political doghouse for Labour prime ministers. David Lange met senior US figures during his term as Prime Minister but he never received an invitation to the White House.

Most of the agenda for Helen Clark's White House meeting will concentrate on the counter-terrorism campaign.

But just as Mr Bush has pulled back on free trade, Helen Clark has edged away from being dragged into his talk of extending the war on terrorism to Saddam Hussein and Iraq.

Another issue is the outstanding difference of opinion over New Zealand's nuclear policy. In advance of Helen Clark's visit, the Americans sounded out Foreign Minister Phil Goff on a possible relaxation of New Zealand's ban on nuclear warships.

To ensure the meeting can be portrayed as a success, nuclear matters will be "corralled off", with the pair agreeing to disagree. Helen Clark will also meet Secretary of State Colin Powell and Bush's National Security Adviser, Condoleezza Rice.

The flag to be presented to the Prime Minister was, said a spokesman for her office, thought to have been hanging alongside other countries' flags in the US Customs House, which was part of the collapsed complex.

A New Zealand passport holder, American John Lozowsky, was among those killed in the terrorist attacks on New York. He lived in New Zealand for about 10 years before moving to New York in 1999.

Getting back on side with the US

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