Bush says he erred in Iraq war

Blair, president stress progress


WASHINGTON -- President Bush acknowledged mistakes and missteps in Iraq last night, including his own "tough talk" and the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal, during a joint appearance with British Prime Minister Tony Blair designed to tout progress in a war that has dragged down both leaders' popularity.

Both men declined to give a timetable for a troop withdrawal. But during a White House news conference, they called the seating of a new government in Baghdad a fresh chance to plot strategy for pulling back from the fight and shifting responsibility to the Iraqis.

Speaking with unusual candor in response to a question about his own mistakes, Bush said he had learned hard lessons from the conflict.

"Saying, `Bring it on' - kind of tough talk, you know, that sent the wrong signal to people," Bush said. He added that saying he wanted Osama bin Laden "dead or alive" also was "misinterpreted" around the world.

Bush made similar comments around the time of his second inaugural, in 2005, when asked what he might do differently in a second term.

But he appeared to go farther than he had before in condemning the impact of the prisoner abuses by U.S. soldiers at the Abu Ghraib facility. He termed Abu Ghraib "the biggest mistake that's happened so far" in the U.S. involvement in the war.

"We've been paying for that for a long period of time," Bush said.

Blair, responding to the same question about his and Bush's missteps, said that "some of the things we didn't expect to be challenges at all have proved to be immense."

He cited the wholesale dismantling of Iraq's existing military and government structure as a mistake. "In retrospect," Blair said, "we could have done de-Baathification in a more differentiated way than we did."

With public opinion running against the war in the United States and Britain, both leaders are under intense pressure to lay out a plan for extricating U.S. and British forces from Iraq, despite the continued violence there.

Bush said the selection of a new Iraqi government last weekend was "an indication that progress is being made." But he said he would not know whether those gains would translate into U.S. troop withdrawals until a new defense minister is named - a process that is stalled amid sectarian differences.

"It probably makes a lot of sense for our commander on the ground to wait until their defense structure is set up before we discuss with them, and he with me, the force levels necessary to achieve our objective," Bush said.

Blair, just back from a round of talks in Baghdad with the new prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, said "it's possible" for Iraqi forces to take primary responsibility for security by the end of 2007, as al-Maliki has said he wants.

Iraqis, Blair said, "want us there in support until they've got the capability, and then they want us to leave and them to take full charge of their country."

There are roughly 131,000 U.S. troops in Iraq - which officials have said they would like to reduce to 100,000 by the end of this year - and some 8,000 British forces. More than 2,460 American troops have been killed in Iraq, and about 106 British, according to the latest Associated Press casualty count.

Al-Maliki has been unable to bridge sectarian differences to fill key security positions in his government, which some analysts call a sign that he will have a difficult time cracking down on the armed militias that are stoking continued waves of violence. U.S. officials have said they expect al-Maliki to fill those slots within days.

The two leaders, who have become personally close over the past five years, exchanged wisecracks with each other and the media during the roughly 50-minute session in the East Room.

When a British reporter suggested that Blair, whose term could end as early as next year, might be making his last official visit to Washington, Bush interjected, "Wait a minute." The president went on to laud Blair as "a man of resolve and vision and courage, and I - my attitude is I want him to be here so long as I'm the president."

Blair, whose standing with the British public has been undercut by a longstanding jibe that he is Bush's "poodle," may not have been helped by the praise being heaped upon him.

"Well, what more can I say?" Blair finally remarked, to laughter from his own press corps. "Probably not wise to say anything more at all."

Bush said he had talked extensively with Blair about how to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, but made it clear that he differs from other European officials who have proposed sweetening a package of incentives for Iran's cooperation. Iran must stop enriching uranium first, Bush said.

"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," Bush said.

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