- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 25, 2006

President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair yesterday acknowledged setbacks and missteps in the Iraqi war, but both refused to set a timeline for withdrawing troops, instead voicing optimism that a new unity government will be best able to end insurgent violence and establish stability.

In a rare admission, Mr. Bush said during the hourlong press conference that he regretted once having taunted loyalists to former dictator Saddam Hussein and insurgents by saying “bring it on” and calling for Osama bin Laden “dead or alive” and the Abu Ghraib prison abuse by U.S. soldiers.

Mr. Bush said last night that the “bring it on” remark was “tough talk that sent the wrong signal,” but both he and Mr. Blair were steadfast in arguing that removing the Iraqi dictator from power was necessary.

“We did not find the weapons of mass destruction that we all believed were there, and that’s raised questions about whether the sacrifice in Iraq has been worth it. Despite setbacks and missteps, I strongly believe we did, and are doing, the right thing,” the president said.

Mr. Blair traveled to Iraq earlier this week to see firsthand the government and Cabinet that were formed over the weekend, and yesterday’s meeting was a chance for him to share his impressions with Mr. Bush.

“Something fundamental changed in Iraq last weekend,” the president said.

Standing in the White House East Room, both leaders said coalition troops are winning in Iraq, and each said the unity government made up of Sunnis, Shi’ites and Kurds is best able to establish security in a country being ripped about by insurgent terrorist attacks.

“I don’t think, in one sense, it’s very surprising that it is both difficult and taking time,” Mr. Blair said. “But I think that they do know that this is of vital importance for them to succeed. And I think you may find that it is easier for Iraqis to do this themselves and take some of these measures necessary than it is for us.”

The White House spent much of yesterday downplaying expectations that the two leaders would make a major announcement about troop withdrawals. But that was the subject of most of the questions, from both the U.S. and British press, and Mr. Bush said he does not plan to keep U.S. troops in Iraq any longer than necessary.

“Listen, I want our troops out, understand what it means to have troops in harm’s way,” he said. “But I also understand that it is vital that we do the job, that we complete the mission. But it has been tough, it has been really tough.”

Deeming reports that the Pentagon hoped to reduce the 131,000 troops in Iraq to 100,000 by year’s end “speculation in the press,” Mr. Bush repeated his longtime stance.

“We’ll keep the force level there necessary to win.”

The president said he would continue to rely on his commanders on the ground to determine when Iraq is stable enough for troops to withdraw and said he will work with the new unity government toward that goal.

“First of all, we’re going to work with our partners in Iraq, the new government, to determine the best way forward in achieving an objective, which is an Iraq that can govern itself and sustain itself and defend itself,” Mr. Bush said.

Mr. Blair, who met earlier this week with Iraq’s new prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, said he felt after the meeting that “the challenge is still immense, but I also came away thinking more certain than ever that we should rise to it.”

Mr. al-Maliki said on Wednesday that Iraqi police forces will be capable of taking control of all security within 18 months. And Mr. Blair said that he found the assertion “possible.”

Each leader has tumbled in his country’s polls, with Mr. Bush now facing the possibility that Republicans could lose control of one or both congressional chambers and Mr. Blair seeking to build a legacy as the end of his tenure approaches. Both in Britain and the United States, calls are increasing to begin troop withdrawals.

But neither would back down from a commitment to see the war to its end, and Mr. Blair said the new Iraqi government wants “us to stay until the job is done.”

He also said coalition nations need to understand the dedication it takes to fight.

“We should have the same faith and confidence in our determination to succeed as [the insurgents] have in their determination to make us fail,” the British leader said.

He called on the international community to step up and bolster the new government.

“I think after these three years and the democratic process working and producing this government, then it is our duty, but it is also the duty of the whole of the international community to get behind this government and support it,” Mr. Blair said.

Mr. Bush said the United Nations needs to step up its support of the fledgling government.

“The United Nations ought to be clear about its desire to liberate people from the clutches of tyranny. That’s what the United Nations ought to be doing, as far as I’m concerned,” he said.

The British prime minister also voiced his regrets in answer to a question posed to both leaders. He said he regretted the way in which Saddam’s Ba’ath Party political allies were purged from the Iraqi military and government soon after the fall of Baghdad. Mr. Blair also said his allies seriously underestimated the insurgency.

The chance of a major insurgency “should have been very obvious to us” from the beginning, he said.

For his part, Mr. Bush also cited the abuse of prisoners at Baghdad’s Abu Ghraib prison as the “biggest mistake” in the U.S. conduct of the war in Iraq.

“I think the biggest mistake that’s happened so far, at least from our country’s involvement, is Abu Ghraib,” Mr. Bush said. “We’ve been paying for that for a long period of time.”

On Iran, Mr. Bush said recent overtures by that nation’s leaders, including what he called “16 or 17 single-spaced typed pages” letter he received from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, don’t answer the fundamental questions about its nuclear program.

“He didn’t address the issue of whether or not they’re going to continue to press for a nuclear weapon,” Mr. Bush said. “That’s the issue at hand.”

He said he and Mr. Blair are committed to a diplomatic solution, and will try to convince other key countries to press the issue through the U.N. Security Council. He also held out the chance of further incentives to entice Iran to forgo its nuclear program but said Iran must take concrete steps first.

“The Iranians walked away from the table,” he said. “They’re the ones who made the decision, and the choice is theirs. Now, if they would like to see an enhanced package, the first thing they’ve got to do is suspend their operations, for the good of the world.”

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide