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Bush, Blair Pledge Continued Backing for Iraqi Democracy


President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair have hailed Iraq's achievement of democratic rule and urged resolve in the face of continued sectarian violence in the country. The two leaders said U.S. and British troops will remain in Iraq until its new unity government is able to stand on its own.

Appearing alongside Prime Minister Blair in an hour-long news conference, President Bush said Iraq's nascent democracy deserves the backing of the United States and the international community. "The formation of a new government represents a new beginning for Iraq, and a new beginning for the relationship between Iraq and our coalition. The United States and Great Britain will work together to help this new democracy succeed," he said.

President Bush acknowledged that continued bloodshed in Iraq has created what he described as "consternation" in the United States, and said he regretted abuses committed by U.S. forces at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison. But he said the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, though controversial, was the right decision -- and that militants and terrorists, whom he branded "Islamic fascists," must not be allowed to turn Iraq into a staging ground for attacks against the free world.

Prime Minister Blair picked up on that theme, saying talks he held with Iraqi leaders during his recent visit to Baghdad made him aware of grim realities in the country, but left him convinced that the international coalition must persevere. "I came away thinking that the challenge is still immense [in Iraq]. But I also came away more certain than ever that we should rise to it," he said.

Mr. Blair said, in talks with Iraq's new leaders, not once did anyone call for an immediate withdrawal of coalition troops. Both he and President Bush said their nation's forces will remain in Iraq as long as their presence is required as determined by commanders on the ground.

Prime Minister Blair urged the international community to rally behind Iraq's democratic government. He said now is the time to speak of Iraq's future, and to set aside debates about the merits of the invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein. "Whatever people's views about the wisdom of that decision, now that there is a democratic government in Iraq, elected by its people, and now [that] they are confronted by those whose mission it is to destroy the hope of democracy, then our sense of mission should be equal to that," he said.

The two leaders were asked about Iran's nuclear program. President Bush said it is Iran that has cut off negotiations on the subject, and that Iran must change its stance before the international community can consider offering a package of incentives for Tehran to halt its nuclear activities. "The Iranians walked away from the [negotiating] table. They are the ones that made the decision, and the choice is theirs. The first thing they have got to do is suspend their [nuclear] operations for the good of the world. It is incredibly dangerous to think of Iran with a nuclear weapon," he said.

Prime Minister Blair praised the Iranian people, but said the country needs a government that recognizes international obligations.

Iran insists its nuclear program is peaceful.

President Bush and Mr. Blair met for more than an hour before the news conference, which was followed by a working dinner.

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