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Bush, Blair Cite Progress, Missteps in Iraq


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne. Good morning.

President Bush is hosting British Prime Minister Tony Blair at the White House today. It is the second day of meetings on the course of the war in Iraq. The two leaders met reporters in the East Room last night. Both vowed to stay the course, even as they acknowledged some regrets.

NPR's David Greene reports.

DAVID GREENE reporting:

Three years and a month ago, President Bush traveled to Northern Ireland for a summit with Prime Minister Blair, perhaps his best friend on the world stage. Coalition forces then were storming Baghdad, Saddam Hussein had bolted, and the two leaders could barely contain their swagger. Fast forward to the East Room last night and a far different tone.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: The decision to remove Saddam Hussein from power was controversial. 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.

GREENE: One reason President Bush wanted to meet with Blair, according to the White House, was to get a feel for Iraq's new prime minister, Nouri Al-Maliki. The British leader was in Iraq earlier this week and met with him. Maliki predicted that his fledgling government can be in charge of security across this country within a year and a half.

Both the President and Prime Minister said they're encouraged by Maliki's plans but unwilling to set any specific timetables yet. But they also spent time talking about their shared vision, that the way to wipe out the scourge of terrorism is to replace tyranny with democracy, one country at a time. Democracy, Blair insisted, is what the Iraqi people want.

Prime Minister TONY BLAIR (United Kingdom): And if the idea became implanted in the minds of people in the Arab and Muslim world that democracy was as much their right as our right, where do these terrorists go? What do they do? How do they recruit? How do they say America is the evil Satan? How do they say the purpose of the West is to spoil your lands, wreck your religion, take your wealth? How can they say that? They can't say that. So these people who are fighting us there know what is at stake. The question is, do we?

President BUSH: I must say, that was a great answer.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GREENE: At one point, a British reporter suggested this could be Blair's last official visit to Washington and asked what the leaders will miss about each other. Mr. Bush's message was not so fast. But it was a serious question and that is part of Blair's trouble. His popularity has tumbled over the last three years and his Labour Party is considering replacing him, perhaps in a year or so, or earlier.

So he and the President share in the realization that their political fortunes, and likely their legacies, are bound up with the fate of Iraq. They were asked if they had any regrets. Mr. Bush, in a rare moment of self-reflection, spoke about once challenging the insurgents in Iraq.

President BUSH: Saying bring it on, kind of tough talk, you know, that sent the wrong signal to people. That I learned some lessons about expressing myself maybe in a little more sophisticated manner.

GREENE: Blair said he regretted not anticipating so much bloodshed in Iraq.

Prime Min. BLAIR: I think that probably there was a whole series of things in Iraq that were bound to come out once you got al-Qaida and other groups operating in there to cause maximum destruction and damage. And therefore I'm afraid in the end we're always going to have to be prepared for the fall of Saddam not to be the rise of democratic Iraq, that it was going to be a more difficult process.

President BUSH: Mr. Prime Minister, can I buy you dinner?

Prime Min. BLAIR: Certainly.

GREENE: And then the two leaders strolled from the East Room for a working dinner, soon to see whether their latest attempt to resell the war made any headway.

David Greene, NPR News, the White House.

MONTAGNE: You can hear last night's news conference and read a transcript at NPR.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Greene is an award-winning journalist and New York Times best-selling author. He is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to radio news program in the United States, and also of NPR's popular morning news podcast, Up First.