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Bush: Iraqis 'have their country back'

U.S. president, Blair focus on positive

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Tony Blair
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Condoleezza Rice

ISTANBUL, Turkey (CNN) -- President Bush on Monday welcomed the transfer of power in Iraq as "a day of great hope for Iraqis and a day that terrorist enemies hoped never to see."

Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, allies in the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, addressed reporters at the NATO Summit in Istanbul.

"After decades of brutal rule by a terror regime, the Iraqi people have their country back," Bush said.

Blair called the day "an important staging post on the journey of the people of Iraq toward a new future, one in which democracy replaces dictatorship, in which freedom replaces repression, and in which all the people of Iraq can look forward to the possibility and the hope of an Iraq that genuinely guarantees a future for people from whatever part of Iraq they come."

Bush had been informed Sunday evening that Iraqi interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi decided on the early transfer of power, after more than a week of discussing the possibility, a senior administration official said. During a NATO meeting Monday morning, Bush learned the transfer ceremony had taken place.

"Mr. President, Iraq is sovereign," read a note handed to him as he sat listening to a speaker. "Letter was passed from Bremer at 10:26 a.m. Iraq time." The note, from national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, was signed "Condi."

Bush scrolled on the note, "Let Freedom Reign!"

He turned to Blair, seated next to him, whispered that the handover had happened, and the two men shook hands.

Later, at the news conference, Bush and Blair acknowledged that major security challenges remain.

"The terrorists are doing all they can to stop the rise of a free Iraq," said Bush. "But their bombs and attacks have not prevented Iraqi sovereignty. And they will not prevent Iraqi democracy. Iraqi sovereignty is a tribute to the will of the Iraqi people and the courage of Iraqi leaders."

Blair said, "If Iraq becomes a stable and democratic country -- and I'm not underestimating for a single instant the difficulties in doing that, incidentally -- but if it does, that is a huge blow to the propaganda and to the effort of the extremists."

Bush said the handover "begins a new phase in Iraq's progress toward full democracy," but noted that the service of the U.S. military -- for which he had high praise -- will go on.

He said the U.S. military "will stay as long as the stability of Iraq requires."

Bush and Blair used the occasion to try to emphasize positive results of the U.S.-led and British-supported war, which frayed their relations with numerous other world leaders.

"I think people are beginning to see that we were, in fact, liberators, and that we're not only going to liberate, we'll follow through, no matter how tough it gets on the ground," said Bush.

Blair described the war as part of an "evolving strategy" after the September 11, 2001 terror attacks.

"Ultimately, our best guarantee of security lies in the values that are not values that are American or British or Western values, but the values of humanity."

Bush discussed the horrors of Saddam Hussein's regime. And in the only reference to weapons of mass destruction, he said, "Fifteen months ago, we faced the threat of a dictator with a history of using weapons of mass destruction. Today the dictator is a threat to no one from the cell he now occupies."

Saddam's alleged possession of WMD's was cited repeatedly by Bush and administration figures in the buildup to the war, but no such weapons have been found since the regime was toppled.

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