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Bush, Blair: Iraq war not as smooth as hoped

Troops will come home when Iraq is ready, allied leaders say

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British Prime Minister Tony Blair and President Bush face tough questions Thursday over the war in Iraq.

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- British Prime Minister Tony Blair and President Bush acknowledged that the war in Iraq hasn't gone as smoothly as they had hoped, and as Bush dodged questions about withdrawing troops Blair said it's "possible" they could be replaced with Iraqi security forces by the end of 2007.

Standing shoulder-to-shoulder as they have throughout the Iraq war, Bush and Blair hailed the formation of a new Iraqi government as a turning point.

Blair visited Baghdad earlier this week. He was expected to brief Bush on his summit with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. They discussed a possible timetable for withdrawing multinational forces, comprising mostly U.S. and British troops.

Al-Maliki said Wednesday that Iraqi troops will be able to handle security in the country with additional training and equipment by the end of 2007. (Full story)

Blair said that was a possibility, but he and Bush concurred that it will be left to the "commanders on the ground" to decide when Iraqi troops are ready to take over security duties.

"We'll keep the force level there necessary to win," Bush said.

Those comments echoed those of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who spoke Thursday with CNN's Larry King. (Full story)

One impediment to reducing forces is that Iraq's national unity government has yet to appoint a defense minister, Bush said.

Both leaders said that the insurgency in Iraq only strengthens their resolve to quash the terrorists and remain in Iraq until the country can govern and defend itself.

Regarding his trip to Baghdad, Blair said, "I came away thinking the challenge is still immense, but I also came away more certain than ever that we should rise to it."

Blair added, "I think it's easy to go back over mistakes that we may have made, but the biggest reason why Iraq has been difficult is the determination by our opponents to defeat us."

Bush shared some of his regrets in how he handled the war in Iraq, namely that he wishes he hadn't told the terrorists to "bring it on."

"I think in certain parts of the world it was misinterpreted," Bush said, adding that he has learned how to express himself in a more "sophisticated" manner.

He also said he regretted the abuse by U.S. troops of prisoners at Abu Ghraib. However, he was quick to point out, the perpetrators of those crimes were brought to justice, something that wouldn't have happened under Saddam Hussein's regime.

Bush conceded that everything has not always gone as planned, especially after "liberation," but he insisted, "We've learned from our mistakes, adjusted our methods and have built on our successes."

Blair is expected use the second day of his visit to make a long-awaited foreign policy speech about the need to overhaul multinational institutions, such as the United Nations and World Bank, set up after World War II.

Blair's official spokesman said the White House talks also would cover the controversy over Iran's nuclear program and the Middle East peace process.

Both face declining ratings

Robin Oakley, CNN's European political editor, said: "We have two leaders here with their backs against the wall -- both of them with polls plummeting because of what they've done in Iraq.(Watch how Iraq has influenced the two leaders' ratings -- 2:33)

"If they had just repeated the same old line that they did everything right, I don't think they would have won respect anywhere. What we saw at this news conference was a kind of group therapy for the two of them. And they say confession is good for the soul.

"So we had President Bush saying some of his macho language had been wrong. We had Tony Blair acknowledging they had underestimated the determination of the insurgency. We had both of them saying 'we didn't' find those weapons of mass destruction we expected to find.'

"What they are doing now is fixing on the arrival of that new unity government as they call it in Baghdad, saying: 'OK things have changed, democracy is starting to work, now the rest of the world must join in and support these people.'" (Watch how Bush and Blair are bound by legacy -- 2:08)

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