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Bush, Blair affirm June 30 Iraq handover

Each calls Israeli disengagement plan an opportunity

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Stay with CNN for updates on reaction to the Blair-Bush news conference, with reports from John King at the White House and Jane Arraf in Baghdad.
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair vowed on Friday that the June 30 deadline for handing over sovereignty over Iraq to the Iraqi people will be met.

The two leaders met at the White House Friday, as Blair comes under renewed opposition at home -- and Bush faces a surge in violence on the ground in Iraq.

Bush said the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad will cease to exist after the handover date, but said that coalition forces will remain to provide security to the new Iraqi government.

"The stakes in Iraq are clear. Iraq will either turn back the challenges to democracy or return to the camp of terror," Bush said in a news conference after the meeting.

"We hold absolutely to the 30th of June timetable," Blair said, adding that the coalition would "redouble" its efforts to build the Iraqis' capabilities to defend themselves.

Blair said that the coalition would work to make Iraq a stable and prosperous democracy, despite the efforts of "sympathizers of Saddam Hussein, outside terrorists and religious fanatics."

"We know the future that they have in mind for the people of Iraq and we reject it utterly, as do the overwhelming majority of the Iraqi people," Blair said.

Blair said the United States and Britain will seek a U.N. resolution "to embody the way forward" in Iraq.

Bush praised the United Nations and the work of envoy Lakhdar Brahimi.

"He's identified a way forward to establishing an interim government that is broadly acceptable to the Iraqi people. Our coalition partners will continue to work with the U.N. to prepare for nationwide elections that will choose a new government in January of 2005," Bush said.

"The idea will be to have a broad-based government and then next year, to move to a new constitution, and then finally to democratic elections ... so who's going to end up governing Iraq ultimately? It's going to be the Iraqi people with a democratic constitution," Blair said.

Sharon plan called an opportunity

Both leaders called Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's disengagement plan an opportunity to revive the stalled peace process but said it was not a substitute for the U.S.-backed road map to peace.

The plan, which Bush endorsed Wednesday during a summit with Sharon, calls for the evacuation of Israeli settlements and military posts in Gaza and a northern section of the West Bank by 2005, according to copies published Friday in three major Israeli newspapers.

"I think what it does is give us at least the possibility of moving it forward," Blair said.

Bush called the plan "a fantastic opportunity."

"You know, the fact that Ariel Sharon said, 'We're going to withdraw from territory' is a historic moment. And it creates a chance for the world to come together to help develop a Palestinian state based upon a solid foundation, a foundation where the institutions are bigger than the people, just like our respective governments are founded," Bush said.

Bush called on Palestinians and the international community to "seize the moment."

"It's going to require a commitment by the Palestinian people to find leadership that is committed to peace and hope," he said. "And it's going to require a commitment by people in the neighborhood to support the emergence of a state."

Blair said that there were still issues that would need to be negotiated, but that the disengagement would give the Palestinians a chance to take the steps needed to reach a point "where the concept of a viable Palestinian state becomes a real possibility; not something that's put in a document and talked about or discussed in resolutions or speeches, but actually is a real, live possibility."

He called on the members of the Mideast Quartet -- the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations -- to provide the resources that the Palestinians would need.

"If that disengagement takes place, surely the intelligent thing, not just for the Palestinians, but for the international community, is to be ready to respond," Blair said.

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