WASHINGTON — President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair acknowledged difficult times in the Iraq war they launched together in 2003, but both vowed to keep troops there until the new Iraqi government takes hold. Both admitted making costly mistakes.
“Despite setbacks and missteps, I strongly believe we did and are doing the right thing,” Bush said Thursday evening in a White House news conference with Blair. “Not everything has turned out the way we hoped.”
For his part, Blair declared that after a meeting earlier this week with Iraq’s new prime minister, “I came away thinking the challenge is still immense, but I also came away thinking more certain than ever that we should rise to it.”
Regrets for both leaders
In unusually introspective comments, Bush said he regrets his cowboy rhetoric the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks such as his “wanted dead or alive” description of Osama bin Laden and his taunting “bring ’em on” challenge to Iraqi insurgents.
“In certain parts of the world, it was misinterpreted.”
He also cited the mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners at the U.S.-run Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad. “We’ve been paying for that for a long time,” Bush said.
Blair regretted the way in which Saddam Hussein’s political allies were purged from the Iraqi military and government soon after the fall of Baghdad. Critics have said the sudden purge left a security vacuum in Iraq and encouraged former regime loyalists to take up arms against the newly installed government.
Blair also said allies seriously underestimated the insurgency.
“It should have been very obvious to us” from the beginning, Blair said.
No withdrawal timetable
Blair, here for talks with Bush that are set to continue into Friday, briefed Bush on his discussions in Baghdad with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who said his forces are capable of taking control of security in all Iraqi provinces within 18 months.
But neither Bush nor Blair would give specifics on when soldiers from their countries can begin to go home.
“We’re going to work with our partners in Iraq, the new government, to determine the way forward,” Bush said. He said the goal remains “an Iraq that can govern itself and sustain itself and defend itself.”
Bush declined to discuss news reports that the Pentagon hoped that the U.S. force, now at 131,000 troops, could be reduced to about 100,000 by year’s end.
He called that “speculation in the press.” He said he has not discussed troop levels with commanders on the ground. “We’ll keep the force level there necessary to win,” Bush said.
Britain has about 8,000 troops in Iraq. Blair, asked about Maliki’s 18-month target for Iraqi control, said the goal remains that Iraqi security forces could “take control progressively of their own country.”
“For that to happen, the first thing obviously we need is a strong government in Baghdad” prepared to enforce its rule throughout the country.
Incentives for Iran?
On another topic high on the agenda, neither Bush nor Blair would reveal their thinking on a possible package of incentives to draw Iran back to negotiations over its suspected nuclear-weapons program.
“Of course, we’ll look at all options. But it’s their choice right now — they’re the ones who walked away from the table,” Bush said. “I think we ought to be continuing to work on ways to make it clear to them that they will be isolated.”
Bush was dismissive of recent back-channel overtures from Tehran, including a letter to him Iran’s hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Bush said he read the letter, and “I thought it was interesting.”
But he added: “He didn’t address the issues of whether or not they’re going to continue to press for a nuclear weapon. That’s the issue at hand.”
In Britain, where Blair’s alliance with Bush has drawn fierce criticism, the news conference aired beginning at half an hour past midnight.
With casualties rising and violence rampant, Iraq weighs heavily on Bush and Blair. Both leaders have plunged in the polls and face growing calls for major troop withdrawals. At least 2,460 members of the U.S. military have died since the beginning of the war. Britain has lost 106 service personnel.
Bush is under additional pressure from fellow Republicans who are nervous about losing control of the House or Senate — or both — in the November elections.
Both leaders were asked about the toll the war has taken on their popularity.
“There is no question the Iraq war has created a sense of consternation here in America,” Bush said, noting the daily images on television screens of innocent people dying “day in and day out.”
“It affects the mentality of Americans,” he said. But he said a more important question now is, “Can we win? That’s what they want to know.”
Blair urged people, both those who agreed with toppling Saddam Hussein and those who didn’t, to “just take a step back” and look at the larger picture.
“They want us to stay until the job is done,” he said of the new democratically Iraqi government.
“Those people fighting us there know what is at stake. The question is, do we?” Blair asked.
Bush on Blair: ‘I'll miss those red ties’
In a lighter moment, both leaders were asked what they would miss about each other once they are both out of office, with Blair widely expected to step down soon given widespread unhappiness with his government.
“Wait a minute,” quipped Bush. “I’ll miss those red ties,” he said, but added quickly, “Don’t count him out. ... I want him her so long as I’m the president.” Bush’s term expires in January 2009.
Said Blair: “What more can I say? Probably not wise to say anything more at all.”
The White House dampened expectations of troop reductions in Iraq or specific dates for cutbacks coming out of the Bush-Blair meeting.
Bush has described the formation of Iraq’s new government of Shiites, Sunni Arabs and Kurds as a turning point. But it’s unclear what that means in terms of the need for U.S. troops. Pentagon officials are worried about the reliability of U.S.-trained Iraqi police and their religious and tribal allegiances.
Army chief of staff plans troops for 2 years
Gen. Peter Schoomaker, the Army chief of staff, said his service is planning for the possibility of having to maintain current troop levels in Iraq for the next two years, while also anticipating the possibility of cuts.
Of the 131,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, 105,000 to 110,000 are Army soldiers.
Schoomaker, in remarks to a group of reporters on Thursday, said Army planners are looking 18 to 24 months into the future to determine how they can provide the number and types of troops required in Iraq.
“We’re continuing to plan for a variety of troop levels,” he said. “Obviously we’re planning to be able to sustain the levels that we have today, but we’re running alternatives as well, in anticipation that we’ll be asked to do some different levels.”
Iraqi leaders flex muscles
Eager to look in charge, Iraq’s new leaders are publicly pressing for Bush and Blair to move toward troop withdrawals while privately seeking assurances from U.S. diplomats and military leaders that the troops won’t leave prematurely.
Blair planned to raise with Bush Iraqi plans for an international conference to back its government, British officials said.
British officials have said most coalition troops could be withdrawn by 2010, but no timetable is to be agreed upon during the talks, Blair’s Downing Street office said.
“What we need is a situation where, if the conditions are right, we can pull back our troops and then withdraw them,” Blair’s spokesman said. “That conditions-based approach will guide everything we do.”
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