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President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair Hold News Conference

Aired May 25, 2006 - 19:30   ET


Good evening.

I want to thank Prime Minister Tony Blair for coming to Washington to discuss his recent visit to Iraq. The prime minister met with key leaders of the new Iraqi government that represents the will of the Iraqi people and reflects their nation's diversity.

As Prime Minister Blair will tell you, Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki outlined an aggressive agenda to bring security to the Iraqi people, to improve electricity and other essential services, and to pursue a strategy for national reconciliation.

The agenda that Prime Minister Maliki has outlined demonstrates that Iraq's new government understands its duty to deliver real improvements in the daily lives of the Iraqi people.

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. We'll take advantage of this moment of opportunity and work with Iraq's new government to strengthen its young democracy and achieve victory over our common enemies.

As we celebrate this historic moment, it's important to recall how we got there and take stock on how far we've come over the last three years. The violence and bloodshed in Iraq has been difficult for the civilized world to comprehend.

The United States and Great Britain have lost some of our finest men and women in combat. The car bombings and suicide attacks and other terrorist acts have also inflicted great suffering on the Iraqi people. And Iraqis have increasingly become the principal victims of terror and sectarian reprisal.

Yet in the face of this ongoing violence, each time the Iraqi people voice their opinion, they chose freedom.

In three different elections, millions of Iraqis turned out to the polls and cast their ballots. Because of their courage, the Iraqis now have a government of their choosing, elected under the most modern and democratic constitution in the Arab world. The birth of a free and democratic Iraq was made possible by the removal of a cruel dictator. The decision to remove Saddam Hussein from power was controversial. We did not find the weapons of mass destruction that we all believed were there, and that's raised questions about whether the sacrifice in Iraq has been worth it.

Despite setbacks and missteps, I strongly believe we did and are doing the right thing. Saddam Hussein was a menace to his people. He was the state sponsor of terror. He invaded his neighbors.

Investigations proved he was systematically gaming the oil-for- food program in an effort to undermine sanctions, with the intent of restarting his weapons programs once the sanctions collapsed and the world looked away.

If Saddam Hussein were in power today, his regime would be richer, more dangerous and a bigger threat to the region and the civilized world.

The decision to remove Saddam Hussein was right.

But not everything since liberation has turned out as the way we had expected or hoped. We've learned from our mistakes, adjusted our methods and have built on our successes.

From changing the way we train the Iraqi security forces to rethinking the way we do reconstruction, our commanders and our diplomats in Iraq are constantly adapting to the realities on the ground.

We've adapted our tactics, yet the heart of our strategy remains the same, to support the emergence of a free Iraq that can govern itself, sustain itself and defend itself.

All of our efforts over the past three years have been aimed toward this goal. And this past weekend, the world watched as Iraqis stood up a free and democratic government in the heart of the Middle East.

With our help, Iraq will be a powerful force for good in a troubled region and a steadfast ally in the war on terror.

With the emergence of this government, something fundamental changed in Iraq last weekend. While we can expect more violence in the days and weeks ahead, the terrorists are now fighting a free and constitutional government.

They're at war with the people of Iraq. And the Iraqi people are determined to defeat this enemy, and so are Iraq's new leaders, and so are the United States and Great Britain.

It is vital that Iraq's new government sees this opportunity to heal old wounds and set aside sectarian differences and move forward as one nation.

As Prime Minister Maliki has made his priorities clear, we have learned they're the right priorities. He said he will focus on improving the security situation in Baghdad and other parts of the country. He has declared he will use maximum force to defeat the terrorists. He has vowed to eliminate illegal militias and armed gangs. He wants to accelerate the training of the Iraqi security forces so they can take responsibility from coalition forces for security throughout Iraq.

He wants to improve health care and housing and jobs so the benefits of a free society will reach every Iraqi citizen.

Our coalition will seize this moment as well.

I look forward for continued in-depth discussions with Tony Blair so we can develop the best approach in helping the new Iraqi government achieve its objectives.

The new government of Iraq will have the full support of our two countries and our coalition, and we will work to engage other nations around the world to ensure that constitutional democracy in Iraq succeeds and the terrorists are defeated.

Mr. Prime Minister?

TONY BLAIR, BRITISH PRIME MINISTER: Thank you, Mr. President. And can I say what a pleasure it is to be with you again at the White House? And thank you for your welcome.

As everyone knows, I was in Iraq earlier in this week, in Baghdad, and I was able to discuss with the new leaders of Iraq firsthand their experience and their hopes and expectations for the future.

And I came away thinking that the challenge is still immense, but I also came away more certain than ever that we should rise to it.

And though it is at times daunting, it is also utterly inspiring to see people from all the different parts of the community in Iraq -- the Sunni, the Shia, the Kurds -- sitting down together, all of them democratic leaders, democratically elected by their people, elected for a four-year term, elected and choosing to come together as a government of national unity, and completely determined to run their country in a different way for the future.

Anybody who studies the program of the Iraqi government can't fail to see the similarities with the type of program that any of us would want to see for our countries.

And what is remarkable about it is that they put the emphasis, of course, on the issues to do with economic recovery and reconstruction and all the problems of infrastructure that they have in their country.

But they also very clearly commit themselves to reconciliation between the different parts of the country, to the fight against sectarianism and to the defeat of terrorism. And I think what is important now is to say that after three years which have been very, very difficult indeed, and when at times it looked impossible for the democratic process to work, I think after these three years and the democratic process working and producing this government, then it is our duty but it is also the duty of the whole of the international community to get behind this government and support it.

Because the other thing that came across to me very strongly from talking to them was that the reason there is bloodshed and violence in Iraq is that the very forces that we are confronting everywhere, including in our own countries, who want to destroy our way of life, also want to destroy their hope of having the same type of life.

In other words, the very forces that are creating this violence and bloodshed and terrorism in Iraq are those that are doing it in order to destroy the hope of that country and its people to achieve democracy, the rule of law and liberty.

And I think there is a pattern here for us in the international community. I know the decision to remove Saddam was deeply divisive to the international community and deeply controversial, and there's no point in rehearsing those arguments over and over again.

But 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 they are confronted with those whose mission it is to destroy the hope of democracy, then our sense of mission should be equal to that.

And we should be determined to help them defeat this terrorism and violence.

And I believe very, very strongly -- indeed, even more so, having talked to the leaders there, and now coming back and examining our own situation and how we help -- I'm more than ever convinced that what is important for them in Iraq is to know that we will stand firm with them in defeating these forces of reaction.

I believe the same, incidentally, is true of the struggle in Afghanistan where, again, exactly the same forces of terrorism and reaction want to defeat the hopes of people for progress.

I would also like to think -- and this is something the president and I were discussing earlier, that we will carry on discussing over tonight and tomorrow -- and that is the importance of trying to unite the international community behind an agenda that means, for example, action on global poverty in Africa and issues like Sudan.

It means a good outcome to the world trade round, which is vital for the whole of the civilized world; vital for developing countries, but also vital for countries such as ourselves. For progress in the Middle East. And for ensuring that the global values that people are actually struggling for today in Iraq are global values we take everywhere and fight for everywhere that we can in our world today. So I would like to pay tribute, also, to the work that our forces do there. I think both our countries can be immensely proud of their heroism and their commitment and their dedication.

But one very interesting thing happened to me when I was there and talking to some of our armed forces, and talking also to the Iraqi soldiers that were working alongside them, and that is, for all the differences in culture and background and nationality, both of them were working together in a common cause. And that was to help a country that was once a brutalized dictatorship become a country that enjoys the same rights and the same freedoms that we take for granted here and in the United Kingdom.

And for all the hardship and the challenge in the past few years, I still think that is a cause worth standing up for.

Thank you, Mr. President.

QUESTION: Mr. President, Pentagon officials have talked about prospects for reducing American forces in Iraq to about 100,000 by year's end. Does the formation of a unity government in Iraq put you on a sound footing to achieve that number?

And, Mr. Prime Minister, is it realistic to think that Iraqi forces will be able to take control of all Iraq by the end of next year, as Mr. Maliki suggests?

BUSH: First of all, we're going to work with our partners in Iraq, the new government, to determine the best way forward in achieving an objective, which is an Iraq that can govern itself and sustain itself and defend itself.

I have said to the American people: As the Iraqis stand up, we'll stand down. But I've also said that our commanders on the ground will make that decision. And I will talk to General Casey once he has conferred with the new government of Iraq. They don't have a defense minister yet. They're in the process of getting a defense minister.

So 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.

QUESTION: So the 100,000...

BUSH: That's some speculation in the press that they haven't talked to me about. And as the commander in chief, they eventually will talk to me about it.

The American people need to know that we'll keep the force level there necessary to win. And it's important for the American people to know that politics isn't going to make the decision as to the size of our force level; the conditions on the ground will make the decision.

And part of the conditions on the ground is a new government. And we believe the new government is going to make a big difference from the lives of the Iraqi people.

I told you earlier that when you attack an Iraqi now you're, you know, you're at war with an Iraqi government that's constitutionally elected, and that's a different attitude from the way it's been in the past.

BLAIR: I think it's possible for the Iraqi security forces to take control progressively of their country. That's exactly the strategy we've outlined at the beginning. And I think it's possible to happen in the way that Prime Minister Maliki said.

For that to happen, obviously the first that we need is a strong government in Baghdad that is prepared to enforce its writ throughout the country. My very strong feeling, having talked to the leaders there, is that they intend there is to be such a government.

Secondly, what they intend is to come down very hard on those people who want to create the circumstances where it's difficult for the Iraqi forces to be in control.

And the truth of the matter is: There is no excuse now for anyone to engage in violence in Iraq. I mean, if people's worry is to do with being excluded from the political process, everybody's got their place in the political process today.

And obviously there are still issues to do with the capability of the Iraqi forces, but all the time they are building up, both in number and capability. And we've got to support that all the way through.

But I'll tell you one interesting thing, from talking to all the different groups -- because sometimes, certainly in our country, the impression is given that the Iraqi people wish that we were gone from Iraq and weren't there any longer in support of the Iraqi government or the Iraqi forces.

Not a single one of the people I talked to -- not one of the political leaders from whatever part of the spectrum in Iraq that I talked to -- and these are all people from all the different communities, elected by their people -- not one of them wanted us to pull out precipitately. All of them wanted us to stick with it and see the job done.

Now, of course, they want to take back control of their own country fully, and we want them to do that.

But when the prime minister, Maliki, talked about an objective time table, what he meant was a timetable governed by conditions on the ground.

And we will be working with them now over the coming period of time to see how we can put that framework together. But, you know, they have a very, very clear sense of what they want the multinational force to do. They 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. And I believe that can happen. QUESTION: One gets a clear sense of your mutual relief that a government has now been formed, an elected government's been formed in Iraq. But nonetheless the current secretary general of the United Nations has said that he believes that the invasion of Iraq was probably illegal.

When you look at your legacy and you look ahead to the reforms of the United Nations you want to see, are you really saying that what you'd actually like to see is a United Nations which could take preemptive action legally?

BLAIR: I think what we need to do is to recognize that there are threats in our world today that require us to act earlier and more effectively. And I think we can debate the institutional structure within which that should happen in the United Nations and elsewhere.

But I also think that when we look at this global terrorism that we face, there is -- to me, at any rate -- a very clear link between the terrorism that is afflicting virtually every country in the Western world, either in actuality or potentially, the terrorism that is happening all over different countries of the Middle East and in Asia and elsewhere, and the terrorism that is there in Iraq and Afghanistan.

And one of the things I think that certainly for our people they find most difficult to understand is they will say: Well, is it -- can it be worth everything that we are doing? I mean, it's such a huge sacrifice that is being made. Can it be worth it?

And I think the answer to that is: It is worth it to those engaged in this violence and terrorism to try to stop us, and we should have the same faith and confidence in our determinations to succeed, as they have in their determination to make us fail.

And I think that is an issue for the whole of the international community, because I've got no doubt at all that if we do succeed, as I believe that we will in Iraq, difficult though it will be, and we succeed in Afghanistan, then the whole of this global terrorism will suffer a defeat.

And that's why I think we need an international community that's capable of recognizing these problems and acting on them.

BUSH: I'd like to see a United Nations that's effective, one that joins us in trying to rid the world of tyranny, one that is willing to advance human rights and human dignity at its core, one that's an unabashed -- an organization -- is unabashed in their desire to spread freedom. That's what I'd like to see.

Because I believe that freedom will yield the peace. I also believe freedom is universal. I don't believe freedom is just, you know, a concept only for America or Great Britain; it's a universal concept.

And it troubles me to know that there are people locked in tyrannical societies that suffer. And the United Nations ought to be clear about its desire to liberate people from the clutches of tyranny. That's what the United Nations ought to be doing, as far as I'm concerned.

QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. President. How close are you to an agreement on a package of incentives for Iran? And what does Iran stand to gain if it were to give up its enrichment program? And why are you ignoring these recent back-channel overtures from Iran?

BUSH: We spent a great deal of time talking about the Iranian issue. And one of the goals that Tony and I had was to convince others in the world that Iran with a nuclear weapon would be very dangerous. And, therefore, we do have a common goal.

And this fundamental question is: How do you achieve that goal, obviously? We want to do it diplomatically.

Right now, we've, as a matter of fact, spent a lot of time upstairs talking about how to convince the Iranians that this coalition we put together is very serious. One option, of course, is through the United Nations Security Council.

And we strategized about how do we convince other partners that the Security Council is the way to go, if the Iranians won't suspend, like the E.U.-3 has asked them to do.

The Iranians walked away from the table. They're the ones who made the decision, and the choice is theirs. 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.

It's incredibly dangerous to think of an Iran with a nuclear weapon.

And, therefore, to answer your questions, of course we'll look at all options. But it's their choice right now. They're the folks who walked away from the table. They're the ones who said that, you know, that your demands aren't -- don't mean anything to us.

Now, in terms of -- you said back channels...

QUESTION: Back-channel overtures.

BUSH: Well, I read the letter of the president, and I thought it was interesting. It was like 16 or 17 single-spaced typed pages. But he didn't address the issue of whether or not they're going to continue to press for a nuclear weapon. That's the issue at hand.

We have no beef with the Iranian people. As a matter of fact, the United States respects the culture and history of Iran. And we want there to be an Iran that's confident and an Iran that answers to the needs of the -- we want women in Iran to be free.

At the same time, we're going to continue to work with a government that is intransigent, that won't budge. And so we've got to continue to work to convince them that we're serious, that if they want to be isolated from the world, we will work to, you know, to achieve that.

QUESTION: Should this enhanced package include a light-water reactor and a security guarantee?

BUSH: You're responding to kind of press speculation. I've just explained to you that the Iranians walked away from the table and that I think we ought to be continuing to work on ways to make it clear to them that they will be isolated.

And one way to do that is to continue to work together as the United Nations Security -- if they suspend and have the IAEA in there making sure that the suspension is real, then of course we'll talk about ways forward, incentives.

QUESTION: Prime Minister, you've both talked a little about the U.N. I know that you believe the U.N. needs vigorous leadership, and you're going to pick up on these themes in your speech tomorrow. Is that a job application?


QUESTION: And if not...

BUSH: Wait a minute.

QUESTION: ... do you both have a sense -- do you have someone in mind? And, if not, how are you going to get the reform of the U.N. you want to see?


BLAIR: No, no, and I'm not sure...


... is the answer to those ones. No, look, what we want to do is make sure that the U.N. is an effective instrument of multilateral action. So that's what everyone wants to see.

And the fact is: There are multiple problems in the world. They require the international community to respond on a collective basis. But you've got to have an effective set of multilateral institutions to do that. And that's true whether you're tackling global poverty or trying to resolve disputes or, indeed, when you're dealing with issues like Iran.

And, you know, the whole point about the international community today is that these problems are urgent. They need to be tackled. If they're not tackled, the consequences are very quickly felt around the world. And you've got to have institutions that are capable of taking them on and tackling them and getting action taken.

Now, we were just talking about Iran a moment ago.

I mean, we want to have this resolved through the process of the multilateral institutions. There's a way we can do this. I mean, after all, we are the ones saying the atomic energy authority, you know, their duties and obligations they lay upon Iran should be adhered to.

And we've got absolutely no quarrel with the Iranian people. The Iranian people are a great people. Iran is a great country, but it needs a government that is going to recognize that part of being a great country is to be, you know, in line with your international obligations and to cease supporting those people in different parts of the world who want, by terrorism and violence, to disrupt the process of democracy.

So, I mean, I think that our position is Iran is -- a very reasonable one, and we want to see how we can make progress and help them to do the things that we believe that they should do.

But they must understand that the word of the international community is sure and is clear, and that is that the obligations that are upon them have got to be adhered to.

BUSH: Stretch?

QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. President.

BUSH: I call him "Stretch."

QUESTION: And I've been called worse.


Has Treasury Secretary Snow...

BUSH: So have we.

QUESTION: ... given you any indication that he intends to...


QUESTION: ... leave his job any time soon?

BUSH: Secretary of Treasury Snow?

QUESTION: Has he given you any indication he intends to leave his job any time soon?

And related to that, Americans -- the macro economic numbers are indeed good, but many Americans are concerned -- increasingly concerned about rising health care costs, costs of gasoline.

And does that make it hard for your administration, Treasury Secretary Snow and everyone else, to continue to talk up the economy?

BUSH: No, he has not talked to me about resignation. I think he's doing a fine job. I mean, after all, our economy is strong. We grew at 3.5 percent last year, had a good strong first quarter this year. We added 2.5 million new jobs. We got 4.7 percent unemployment rate nationwide. Productivity's up. Home ownership's high. Small businesses are doing well.

He's done a fine job. And obviously people are concerned about rising fuel prices. All the more reason to get off oil and to promote alternatives, such as ethanol or battery technologies that will enable us to drive the first 40 miles on electricity.

We're spending about $1.2 billion over the next 10 years to develop hydrogen fuel cells.

We need to get away from hydrocarbons here in America, for economic security, for national security and for environment reasons, as well.

One way we could help alleve gasoline prices here in America is for the Congress to pass some regulatory relief so we can actually expand refining capacity. We haven't built a new refinery here since the 1970s. And, curiously enough, when demand for a product goes up with tight supply, price follows.

And so that we put out some logical ways for Congress to work with the administration to, you know, relieve price pressures on gasoline.

As far as health care goes, there are some practical ways to deal with health care costs. And one of the most practical ways is to get rid of these junk lawsuits that are running good doctors out of practice and running up the practice -- the price of medicine, to pass it out of the House. They can't get it out of the Senate because the lawyers won't let it out.

But we put forth a common sense practice to deal with rising health care costs as well.

QUESTION: You've both presented the Iraqi government as a substantial vindication of the conflict. Do you also accept, as a matter of harsh political reality, that the Iraqi conflict has also left both of you politically weakened and -- whether justly or unjustly -- less able to give the kind of moral leadership that you're discussing today?

BUSH: No question that the Iraq war has, you know, created a sense of consternation here in America. I mean, when you turn on your TV screens and see innocent people die day in and day out, it affects the mentality of our country.

But here's what they're asking in America: They're asking, "Can we win?" That's what they want to know. Do we have a strategy for victory?

And so, the talk about the unity government, you might remember there was a lot of speculation as to whether there would even be a unity government. A couple of months ago, people were saying, "Well, they can't even get a unity government going," you know. But we have a unity government: a Kurd president, a prime minister who's a Shia, a speaker who's a Sunni. These are strong leaders.

It's an indication that progress is being made. Part of progress, of course, is on the political track. You know, we had elections in Iraq. Twelve million people voted last December. Now, it seems like an eternity ago, I know, like a decade. But that's not all that long ago in the larger scope of things.

Twelve million people said, "We want to be free." It was an astounding moment. And this unity government is now formed as a result of those elections under a constitution approved by the Iraqi people.

That's progress. It's certainly a far sight from the days of a tyrant, you know, who killed hundreds of thousands of his own people and used weapons of mass destruction and threatened the neighborhood. I mean, that is progress.

No question, however, that the suiciders and the killers and the IEDs and the deaths have an affect on the American people. But one of the reasons that I appreciate Tony is coming is that he brings a fresh perspective of what he saw.

And the American people need to know we are making progress toward a goal of an Iraq that can defend itself, sustain itself and govern itself, that will deny the terrorists a safe haven.

You know, Al Qaida has made it clear what -- their intentions in Iraq. You know, we -- I'm sure you've read some of the intercepts that are laid out there for people to see. And they made it clear that it's just a matter of time for countries like Great Britain and the United States to leave. In other words, if they make life miserable enough, we'll leave.

And they want us to leave because they want a safe haven from which to launch attacks not only on us, but on moderate Muslim governments as well.

These people are totalitarians. They're Islamic fascists. They have a point of view. They have a philosophy. And they want to impose that philosophy on the rest of the world. And Iraq just happens to be one of the battles in the war on terror.

And Tony brings up a good point: Why are they resisting so hard? What is it about democracy they can't stand?

Well, what they can't stand about democracy is this: Democracy is the exact opposite of what they believe. They believe they can impose their will. They believe there's no freedom of religion. They believe there's no women's rights.

They have a dark vision of the world. And that's why they're resisting so mightily. So, yes, I can understand why the American people are troubled by the war in Iraq. I understand that.

But I also believe the sacrifice is worth it, and it's necessary. And I believe a free Iraq is not only going to make ourselves more secure, but it's going to serve as a powerful example in the Middle East.

You know, foreign policy for a while just basically said: If it seems OK on the surface, just let it be.

And guess what happened? There was resentment and hatred that enabled these totalitarians to recruit and to kill, which they want to continue to do to achieve their objectives.

And the best way to defeat them in the long run is through the spread of liberty. And liberty's had the capacity to change enemies to allies. Liberty's had the capacity to help Europe become whole, free and at peace.

History has proven that freedom has got the capacity to change the world for the better. And that's what you're seeing.

Now the amazing thing about dealing with Prime Minister Blair is never once has he said to me on the phone, "We better change our tactics because of the political opinion polls." You know?

And I appreciate that steadfast leadership. And I appreciate somebody who's got a vision, a shared vision, for how to note only protect ourselves in the war on terror, but how to make the world a better place.

BLAIR: I mean, I don't really think it's a matter of our vindication; I think in a way that's the least important part of it. But I do think that occasionally we should just take a step back and ask: Why are we doing this? Why is it so important?

Saddam was removed from power three years ago. Since then, incidentally, our forces have been there with a United Nations mandate and with the consent of the Iraqi government; itself, the Iraqi government, becoming progressive more the product of direct democracy.

So whatever people thought about removing Saddam -- you agree with it; you didn't agree with it -- for these last three years the issue in Iraq has not been, "These people are here without any international support," because we have had a United Nations resolution governing our presence there.

The issue is not, "You're there, but the Iraqi people don't want you there," because the Iraqi government, and now this directly elected Iraqi government has said they want us to stay until the job is done.

So why is it that for three years we have had this violence and bloodshed? Now, people have tried to say it's because the Iraqi people -- "You people just -- you don't understand. You went in with this Western concept of democracy. And you didn't understand that their whole culture was different; they weren't interested in these types of freedom." These people have gone out and voted -- a higher turnout, I have to say, I'm afraid to say, than either your election or mine...


These people have gone out and voted...

BUSH: Depends on which one, 2000 or 2004.


BLAIR: I think both of them.


BUSH: Yes, I think you're right.


BLAIR: They have gone out and voted despite terrorism, despite bloodshed, despite literally the prospect of death for exercising their democratic right.

So they have kept faith with the very democratic values that we say we believe in. And the people trying to wrest that democracy from them are opposed to absolutely everything we stand for and everything the Iraqi people stand for.

So what do we do in response to this? And the problem we have is very, very simple. A large part of the perspective with which we look at this is to see every act of terrorism in Iraq, every piece of ghastly carnage on our television screens, every tragic loss of our own forces. We see that as a setback and as a failure, when we should be seeing that as a renewed urgency for us to rise to the challenge of defeating these people who are committing this carnage.

Because over these past three years, at every stage, the reason they have been fighting is not, as we can see, because Iraqi people don't believe in democracy, Iraqi people don't want liberty. It is precisely because they fear the Iraqi people do want democracy; the Iraqi people do want liberty.

And if the idea became implanted in the minds of people in the Arab and Muslim world that democracy was as much their right as our right, where to these terrorists go?

What do they do? How do they recruit? How do they say, "America is the evil Satan"? How do they say, "The purpose of the West is to spoil your lands, wreck your religion, take your wealth"? How can they say that? They can't say that.

So these people who are fighting us there know what is at stake. The question is: Do we?

BUSH: I must say, that was a great answer.


BLAIR: Yours was pretty good, too.

QUESTION: You have your chance now.

BUSH: Another chance. Good. Well, thank you, Martha.

QUESTION: Mr. President, you have said time and time again and again tonight, when Iraqi forces stand up, coalition forces can start standing down.

BUSH: Right.

QUESTION: But the fact is you have been standing up Iraqi forces in great numbers. The administration says you have hundreds of thousand trained and equipped, tens of thousand leading the fight. And yet during the same period they've been standing up, there has not been a substantial decrease in U.S. and coalition forces.

So what does that tell us about how meaningful the figures are on Iraqi troops? And what does that tell us about a potential for drawdown?

BUSH: It tells you that the commanders on the ground are going to make the decision; that's what that tells you. And when they feel comfortable in recommending to me fewer troops, I will accept that.

But they're going to make that recommendation based upon the conditions on the ground. I know I keep saying that. And it probably bores you that I keep giving you the same answer, but I haven't changed my opinion.

The -- I talk to our commanders all the time. They feel strongly that the Iraqi army is getting better.

It's hard to have a command and control system in a -- with an Iraqi army when you don't have a defense minister. And so Mr. Maliki is going to have to pick one soon. And then our commanders will gauge as to whether or not the command and control structure is sufficient to be able to enable the Iraqis to take more of the fight.

They are taking more of the fight, by the way. They're in more provinces than ever before. They're taking over more territory. They're taking over more missions.

There are some gaps that we need to continue to work on to fill. The transportation issue's going to need to be dealt with over time.

All I can report to you is what General Casey, in whom I have got a lot of confidence, tells me, and that is the Iraqis are becoming better and better fighters. And at some point in time, when he feels like the government is ready to take on more responsibility and the Iraqi forces are able to help them do so, he will get on the telephone with me and say, "Mr. President, I think we can do this with fewer troops."

We've been up to 165,000 at one point. We're at about 135,000 now.


BUSH: Hold on for a second.

Actually, he moved -- actually he moved some additional troops from Kuwait into Baghdad. Conditions on the ground were such that we needed more support in Baghdad, to secure Baghdad, so he informed me, through Donald Rumsfeld, that he wanted to move troops out Kuwait into Baghdad.

So these commanders, they need to have flexibility in order to achieve the objective.

You don't want, you know, politicians making decisions based upon politics. You want the commander in chief making decisions based upon what the military thinks is the right way to achieve the objective.

I've set the objective. It's clear for everybody: a country that can sustain itself, defend itself and govern itself. And we're making progress on all fronts.

But as to how many troops we have there will depend upon the generals and their commanders saying, "This is what we need to do the job, Mr. President."

And that's the way it's going to be so long as I'm standing here as the commander in chief, which is 2 1/2 more years.

BLAIR: I spoke to General Casey and to our own General Fry in Baghdad on Monday. We sat down and talked this very issue through. And I think what you will find that progressively there will be more and more parts of Iraq that are policed by the Iraqi security forces themselves. And their capability is improving.

But I also think you will find, probably over the next few months, there will be a real attempt by the anti-democratic forces to test them very, very strongly.

And, remember, a lot of the attacks that are now happening, not on the multinational force -- although those attacks continue, of course -- but actually on the Iraqi forces themselves, on their police, on their army and so on, and the purpose, of course, is to deter them from the very build-up of capability that we want to see.

But over the course of the next few months, you will see progressively those provinces in Iraq coming under Iraqi control. And then, of course, it will be for the Iraqis to sort out that responsibility. BUSH: One thing, Martha, is that we want to be sure we complete the mission, that we achieve our objective. A loss in Iraq would make this world a incredibly dangerous place. Remember, there is not only sectarian violence, a kind of hangover from Saddam's era, but there is an Al Qaida presence, in the form of Zarqawi, who wants to sow as much havoc as possible to cause us to leave before the mission is complete.

Listen, I want our troops out. Don't get me wrong. I understand what it means to have troops in harm's way. And I know that there's a lot of families making huge sacrifices here in America. I'll be going to a Memorial Day ceremony next Monday paying tribute to those who've lost their life.

I'm sure I will see families of the fallen. And I fully understand the pressure that's being placed upon our military and their families.

But I also understand that it is vital that we do the job, that we complete the mission.

And it has been tough. It's been really tough, because we're fighting an unconventional enemy that is willing to kill innocent people. There are no rules of war for these people.

But make no mistake about it: What you're seeing in Iraq could happen all over the world if we don't stand fast and achieve the objective.

No, I had the follow-up answer; you can't have the follow- up question. Nice try, though.

QUESTION: Prime Minister, this is possibly your last official visit to Washington as prime minister.

BUSH: Wait a minute.


Back-to-back disses.

QUESTION: At least the beginning of the end of your particular special relationship. Will you miss the president? What will you miss about him?

And for the president, what will you miss about Tony Blair and what are you looking for in an eventual replacement?

BUSH: I'll miss those red ties is what I'll miss.


I'll say one thing. He can answer the question. Don't count him out; let me tell it to you that way. I know 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: Well, what more can I say?


Probably not wise to say anything more at all.


You guys, come on. I want you to -- you're the British delegation; ask a few serious questions.


QUESTION: Perhaps I can change the mood.

Mr. President, you talk about setting the objective, but our people, my colleagues on the ground in Iraq, say that when they talk to American troops, the rank and file, they say they don't believe that they've had enough to do the job.

They say further that, while the Iraqi army may be improving, there is absolutely no way to depend upon the police, who they say are corrupt and aligned with militias.

All of this going on. What reason is there to believe that the new government can do any better with these people than we have been able to do so far?

BUSH: There's several tracks. One is the political track. I think it's very important for the Iraqi people to have a government that has been elected under a constitution they approved.

In other words, the political track has been a vital part of having a country that can govern itself and defend itself.

There's a security track. And there's no question that there are, you know, a lot of Iraqis trained to fight. And many of them are good fighters.

There are 117,000 that have been trained and equipped.

There needs to be more equipment. No question about that.

The Iraqis -- I think if you would get a -- at least the assessment I get is that the Iraqi army is moving well along, and they're taking more and more of the territory over in order to defend their country.

No question, we got a lot of work to do on the police. General Casey has said publicly that year 2006 is the year that we'll train the police up and running.

Now, perhaps the place where there needs to be the most effective police force is in Baghdad. I just told you we're moving more troops in there. There's a -- General Casey met today with the prime minister to talk about how to secure Baghdad. It's really important that Baghdad, that the capital city become more secure. And there's plans to deal with the contingencies on the ground. All I can tell you is that we're making progress toward the goal.

BLAIR: Can I just -- I'd now like to say something again about the discussions I had on Monday. I mean, I think what is important is to try and get a sense of balance in this.

It would be completely foolish for us to say: There are no problems with either the police or the army; you know, you've got a full-force capability in the way that we want. And nobody is actually saying that.

It would also be wrong to turn it around the other way, though. Even in respect to the police, I mean, I had quite a detailed discussion, not in fact with the generals, but some of the ordinary soldiers who were British soldiers there up in Baghdad, and also with some of the people who are working with the police at the moment.

And what they said to me is: Yes, there are real problems to do with corruption in parts of the police force.

But actually, there's also another side to it, which is there are people who are really dedicated and really committed to a nonsectarian Iraq who also are playing their part.

Now, I think the whole question is whether this new government can then grip this in the way, in a sense, that only they can. You see, I think this is where, inevitably, over time, we have to transfer responsibility.

I mean, that is, of course, what we wish to do.

And part of that is because it is easier for an Iraqi interior minister who is the product of an Iraqi-elected government to go in and take the really tough measures sometimes that is necessary to sort some of these issues out.

But I can assure you of two things.

First of all, there is another, more positive side to the Iraqi forces, both the army and in parts of the police, as well.

And, secondly, the Iraqi government knows that this is the absolute prerequisite of success for them.

And, you know, it's just -- one of the ministers said to me, he said, "You should understand our state was a completely failed state." You know, the police -- people didn't go to the police in Iraq if they had a problem under Saddam. They had a problem if they were in contact with the police because the way the state was run.

And so you're talking about, literally, building the institutions of a state from scratch. And I don't think it's in one sense very surprising that it is both difficult and taking time. But I think that they do know that that this is of vital importance for them to succeed. And I think you may find that it is easier for Iraqis to do this themselves and take some of these measures necessary than it is for us, so we will be there obviously in support of what they're doing.

QUESTION: Mr. President, you spoke about missteps and mistakes in Iraq.

Could I ask both of you which missteps and mistakes of your own you most regret?

BUSH: Sounds like kind of a familiar refrain here.

Saying, "Bring it on"; kind of tough talk, you know, that sent the wrong signal to people. I learned some lessons about expressing myself maybe in a little more sophisticated manner, you know. "Wanted, dead or alive"; that kind of talk. I think in certain parts of the world it was misinterpreted. And so I learned from that.

And, you know, I think the biggest mistake that's happened so far, at least from our country's involvement in Iraq, is Abu Ghraib. We've been paying for that for a long period of time.

And it's -- unlike Iraq, however, under Saddam, the people who committed those acts were brought to justice. They have been given a fair trial and tried and convicted.

BLAIR: I think inevitably some of the things that we thought were going to be the biggest challenge proved not to be, and some of the things we didn't expect to be challenges at all have proved to be immense.

I think that probably in retrospect, though at the time it was very difficult to argue this, we could have done de-Baathification in a more differentiated way than we did.

I think that the most difficult thing, however, has been the determination of people to move against the democratic process in Iraq in a way that I think, as I was saying a moment or two ago, indicates our opponent's very clear view from a very early stage; said they had to stop the democratic process working.

And, you know, 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. And I don't think we should be surprised at that.

Maybe in retrospect, when we look back, it should have been very obvious to us and is obvious to us still in Afghanistan that, for them, it is very clear.

You know, they can't afford to have these countries turn around.

And I think that probably there was a whole series of things of Iraq that were bound to come out once you got Al Qaida and other groups operating in there to cause maximum destruction and damage.

And therefore, I'm afraid, in the end, we're always going to have to be prepared for the fall of Saddam not to be the rise of democratic Iraq; that it was going to be a more difficult process.

BUSH: Mr. Prime Minister, can I buy you dinner?


BLAIR: Certainly.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: And, so, the president of the United States and the prime minister of Britain, they wind up a news conference, almost an hour, as scheduled, the president acknowledging at the end that he did make mistakes, regrets some of the comments that he made -- the prime minister also suggesting that the whole de- Baathification process in the fall of Saddam, the way it worked out was a big, big mistake.

CNN's live coverage of President Bush's and Prime Minister Tony Blair joint news conference continues now with a special edition of PAULA ZAHN NOW.

She's here in Washington with us.

Paula, it was fascinating to hear the president, someone who has in the past rarely acknowledged making mistakes, going forward and saying, yes, indeed, there were mistakes. And he spoke openly about some of them, when he said he regrets the comments "Bring 'em on," when he was referring to the terrorists. He regrets the comment that he made, Osama bin Laden is -- he wants dead or alive.

PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: And he actually went on to say, I -- I have learned the lesson that I needed to speak in more sophisticated terms.

And -- and he went on to say, in a very pointed way, that we have been paying for the price of what happened at Abu Ghraib for a long, long time.

I was really struck by, I think, one of the most pointed questions in the whole news conference. It came from a reporter who was basically saying, Mr. President, you continue to say, as more and more Iraqi troops stand up, we will stand down. And she made the point, of course, you have significantly increased the number of Iraqi security forces in place, the number of -- of police on the street, and, yet, we have seen no drawdown.

Well, neither one of the leaders would touch on that tonight. None of us were really expecting them to set a timetable for withdrawal -- President Bush making it very clear that is something that is going to be left up to General Casey and -- and the commanders in the field.

BLITZER: Let's bring in our -- our political reporters. John King is here with us, Candy Crowley, John Roberts. John, let's start with you.

What did you make of this joint news conference?

JOHN ROBERTS, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, it meant that I was totally wrong in the pregame show, when I said Iraq...


ZAHN: You were the one who said Iraq would not dominate the...


ROBERTS: I jinxed it, didn't I?

Yes, I mean, nothing -- nothing on immigration, nothing on the -- the Capitol Hill raid of Jefferson's office, nothing on the CIA leak investigation, I mean, some pretty substantive question about Iraq, a lot on the U.N., which I guess is of, you know, great interest to the Brits, but not so much here.

And it's interesting that we had to really wait until the very end before we got those interesting questions about what mistakes have been made and...


BLITZER: And -- and, John King, you covered this president.

So did you, John Roberts.

Candy, you have covered him for a long time. It was interesting to hear him acknowledge, as we said, some of these mistakes.

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: He did this right around the time of the inaugural, the second inaugural. He also did the same thing, not in as much detail as he did tonight.

But I pulled up quickly an interview from back in those days. And he -- this is what he said in January 2005: "You're right. Some of my language in the first four years was -- it had an unintended consequence. And I'm mindful of that."

And he was speaking of the same thing, "Bring it on," "Wanted dead or alive." That was on the advice of his wife, the first lady, Laura Bush, who told him that sometimes he was too cowboy and too Texan, and he needed to dial it back.

I think one other interesting point is, the point both of these leaders wanted to make was, they're confident now that, finally, Iraq now has a government that will work, that will stabilize the country and eventually allow them to bring the troops home.

But even if they made that case, they acknowledged, as Paula noted, they can't have conversations about when to bring the troops home, because this new government doesn't have a defense minister yet. So, it is not quite as up and running as they're portraying it to be.

ZAHN: And that was another interesting concession I thought the president made very early on in the news conference, when he talked about the first time he made a reference to a mistake, the -- the -- the inadequate training for Iraqi security forces.

Neither one of them seemed to want to engage on this point that the prime minister of Iraq made just a day or two ago, basically saying, by the end of the year, his security forces will be in position where they could be in control of most of the country, and, in 18 months, in control of the whole country.



ZAHN: Neither one of the leaders...

CROWLEY: Right. But...


ZAHN: ... would -- would confirm that that even seems plausible at this hour.

ROBERTS: Blair -- Blair went a little way down the road.

ZAHN: He said, they're moving there progressively, right?

ROBERTS: And then he said, I can see that it might be possible to be done in the way that al-Maliki said it could be done.

CROWLEY: These are -- you know, they're battle-worn from the executive position.

I mean, they have seen things and they have talked about things that didn't happen the way they thought they were going to happen. For them to now come out and say, yes, and set a marker, which they clearly didn't want to do, would be to have us all waiting for that time to say, well, once again, it hasn't happened.

What you saw here tonight is precisely what history will record, that these are two men who started this war together, basically, and who stuck with it, and are sticking with it now, saying, we cannot leave.

They have -- you know, they have had every opportunity to walk back from this, and they can't. It is -- they are tied to this war, and that's what we saw in question after question.

BLITZER: And -- and, John, if you listened carefully to their prepared opening statements, both very much on the defensive, defending their decisions: Sure, there were mistakes. Sure, it didn't go as planned, but the world is better off with Saddam Hussein out. That basically was their bottom-line message.

KING: What does it tell you that, three years after the beginning of the war in Iraq, we're still debating why we went to war in Iraq and defending why we went to war in Iraq? As Candy noted, this is their legacy, and they know it.

It is remarkable to me how much time was spent looking back. Here you have two leaders who want to present a unified front on Iran, who are about to go a G8 Summit in Russia, at a time everyone questions President Putin's commitment to democracy. They have a lot of other issues on the table.

And President Bush has, as John Roberts just noted, those issues here at home, the immigration bill, this controversial raid of a Capitol Hill office. Part of it is because of the questioning, but the leaders certainly spent almost all of their time defending a war that started three years ago.

ROBERTS: You know what is interesting?

You know who else that he's glad that -- that Saddam Hussein is gone is Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the -- the leader of Iran, in that letter that he sent to President Bush. So, I mean, the two of them are on the same page there.

But I think it's pretty obvious, Wolf, that having Tony Blair by his side tonight, doing this in prime time, where he would get a lot more eyes, he really is acknowledging that he needs to get out there; he needs to talk more about Iraq, to try to move those numbers up.

This really is the millstone around the neck of this administration and, to a large degree, Republicans as well. This is the prism through which every other issue that comes before the president and the Republican Congress is seen. It's dragging everything down.

So, he has got to reach out to the American people. He's got to explain more -- this is according to Republican advisers who have talked with the White House -- and try to get people more on his side, try to lift those numbers up a little bit so that they can start to get some of these other issues out from underneath its weight.

ZAHN: But it's such a huge challenge at a time -- one of the reporters was pointing out tonight that you have such massive corruption in the police departments in Iraq. And when we have had mission after mission, bipartisan missions of Congress -- representatives of Congress going over to Iraq and telling us simply that training for the security forces is inadequate.

CROWLEY: I don't think that either the president or Tony Blair at this point thinks that talking about Iraq is going to lift their numbers. I mean, you know, the president has been out there for some time. They don't have any choice.

I mean, at this point, what they need to do, what they're arguing for, in effect, is we have to stay there. I mean, you know, with numbers at 26 or 28, whatever they're having, and 33 for the president, the argument really is we have to stay there. That takes money, that still takes a certain amount of political support, so that's right now what the big -- what their big future holds, is a constant argument for staying there.

BLITZER: It was interesting also that the president was very firm in saying, you know, all this speculation out of press about troops leaving, troops withdrawing. He didn't use these words, "I'm the decider," but in effect he said, once again, "I make those decisions, I'm the commander in chief, they have to come to me, they haven't come to me and said troops are leaving. When they do, we'll decide, but I'll make that decision." He was forceful on that.

ROBERTS: But they certainly have said, these commanders in the field and at the Pentagon have said, these are the levels we would like to achieve by certain times.

KING: Caught again recently in this expectations game that's tripped them up in the past, because they were confident about this new government. They started to talk about bringing troops home. And it took a lot longer than they thought to get this new government in place. And again, this new government still does not have a defense minister.

ZAHN: But in many ways it's an expectation game, certainly that Tony Blair has been very happy to play. As recently as a week ago, he was saying "I want to get my troops out as soon as possible." There was no reference to that tonight.

KING: Well Blair is trying to survive. In his own Labor Party, there's an open revolt. Many want him to step aside before the end of the year. He wants to last another 12 or 18 months. Can he do that? It's an open question. Just like this president's approval rating, his approval rating is fully dependent -- or almost fully dependent on a four-letter word, Iraq.

ROBERTS: It was pretty interesting though the way that President Bush accepted the idea that Tony Blair wasn't going to be there. When asked, "What are you going to miss about him?" He said, "I'll miss his red ties." And then he said, "Oh wait a second here, don't count him out." It's kind of like he's gone, see you Tony, bye. Oh wait a second, maybe I shouldn't say that. And then Blair of course saying, I think the less said the better on this one.

KING: Blair there apparently is much more aligned with the Democrats openly.

ZAHN: Would you be willing to stand up as I check in with Suzanne Malveaux over at the White House? We were caught a little off-guard. We thought the news conference might go a full hour, went a shade less than that, about 51 minutes by our count. What is the few from there?

SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well you know, what I thought was most interesting, Paula, is really this is the case of the Texan who regretted his swagger. Essentially he did not have the kind of nuance in speaking to the international community that many people thought was necessary to build an international coalition.

The president today in a move that is very difficult for this man, acknowledged missteps and mistakes, and specifically talked about his style of talk.


BUSH: I'm saying bring it on. Kind of tough talk, you know, that sent the wrong signal to people, that -- I learned some lessons about expressing myself in maybe a more sophisticated manner. You know, wanted dead or alive, that kind of talk. I think in certain parts of the world, it was misinterpreted, and so I learned from that.


MALVEAUX: I also think too something that was very interesting that came out of this, that there was a division somewhat between President Bush and British Prime Minister Blair when it came to the new Iraqi prime minister assessment, al-Maliki, of what could be accomplished by the end of 2007.

President Bush making it very clear that he did not necessarily believe the conditions on the ground, that he could answer that question and be confident in al-Maliki's assessment that they could take over by the end of next year. British Prime Minister Tony Blair saying he actually did agree, that he would have to wait to see how strong the leadership is, but was very open to the possibility that things would be able to move that quickly. Paula?

ZAHN: Suzanne, you're being slightly drowned out by something going on out there. Can you describe who we're hearing?

MALVEAUX: War protests.

ZAHN: What are they protesting against?

MALVEAUX: War protests. It's not uncommon, Paula, to have protesters day and night here at the White House. They're certainly very much aware that British Prime Minister Tony Blair is here and that the topic is Iraq and war.

ZAHN: Suzanne Malveaux, thanks so much -- another member of the best political team on T.V.

BLITZER: She certainly is. All of our people are excellent in this, as we can see here tonight. Let's go over to the Pentagon. Jamie McIntyre is standing by. Jamie, we heard the president talk about U.S. troops from Kuwait being redeployed into Iraq at the request of the commander general George Casey. Is this new information that we're getting or is this something we've known about?

JAMIE MCINTYRE, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, we've known about the fact that the United States has what they call a call- forward force in Iraq, troops that are on standby if they're needed. We also know that back in March, about 700 of those troops were called to Baghdad in advance of the formation of the new government with the holy days. It was supposed to be a temporary deployment, but they were still in country.

What's not clear is if they're talking about an additional call- up from that, so-called forward base, the troops that stay in Iraq on call of the commander general Casey if he needs them. But what is clear is that neither President Bush nor Prime Minister Blair is comfortable at this time lowering the number of U.S. coalition forces in the country, even though as was pointed out there are more than 250,000, more than a quarter of a million supposedly trained and equipped Iraqi forces in the country.

General Casey still needs to talk to the new Iraqi government. It was pointed out they don't have the defense ministry yet to make those troop reductions that everyone keeps waiting for. And while it's probably the worst kept secret at the Pentagon, that the Pentagon has a plan on paper at least that would allow reductions down to about 100,000 troops at the end of the year, President Bush claimed he didn't know anything about that.

He said that was press speculation, nobody had talked to him about it. Technically that's probably correct, because nobody's willing to make that a formal proposal yet until they see how things are going. And as evidenced by the fact that we're not seeing any immediate troop reductions in the short term, things have not improved enough to make that possible. Wolf?

BLITZER: Jamie McIntyre at the Pentagon. Paula, you know, it's interesting that the president is the commander in chief. As Jamie says, eventually all these major troop decisions have to come to him. He has to formally sign off on them before these decisions are made.

ZAHN: And he made that point clear tonight a number of times, that the information has got to come from General Casey and the field commanders on the ground before he would make a decision like that.

Let's quickly go out into the field now. How does all the talk in Washington compare with what's going on in Iraq, specifically in Baghdad? Let's check in with Ryan Chilcote, who's standing by. Ryan, what stood out to you as you listen in on this news conference tonight?

RYAN CHILCOTE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Paula I think one of the things that really stood out for me was the amount of time that the two leaders spoke about the political component in solving the crisis here in Iraq.

And one of the biggest things that jumped out at me was this statement that Iraq now has a government of national unity. That is, of course, something that is still very much an issue of debate here in Iraq, It does have by composition, a government of national unity, but remember, that government was just appointed over the weekend. It's only been in power for five days now.

As far as the Iraqi people are concerned, they still feel very much that this government has to prove that it will be a unifier, that it will unify Iraq's various religious and ethnic groups. And everyone believes that that is key, really going to be key to solving the violence.

Another point that we heard I think from both leaders, in particular from President Bush, a concession from him really about this, was that this government is really effectively incomplete. You heard President Bush there saying that Iraq still -- the Iraqi government still doesn't have a defense minister. And that gives you a little bit of insight into the political wrangling that continues, really on the sectarian front, by the way.

The reality is that right now Iraq no longer -- neither -- Iraq doesn't have either someone to run the military or the police, for that matter. So not only is it difficult, as President Bush pointed out, for the U.S. to be talking to anyone about drawing down troops, even if that conversation was to take place, but it's very difficult to imagine how there can be an effective fight against the insurgency and sectarian violence here if there's nobody actually in a position of leadership to do that at this point. Paula?

ZAHN: So there was talk about potential draw down of U.S. troops. What is really realistic? When you hear the prime minister of Iraq saying within 18 months, he's fairly confident that his security forces will be in a position where they can control the country? Is that realistic?

CHILCOTE: You heard President Bush there say that he's going to defer to his commanders on the ground, and it's going to depend on the conditions on the ground. I think that's really key because obviously there are two things that need to be considered. First of all, Iraq's own security forces and their readiness to really step up and take charge as the prime minister indicated, perhaps throughout the country in 18 months.

Right now numbers aside, irrespective of how many actual trigger pullers there are in the Iraqi military, there are real issues that are not being discussed about this military's ability to support itself.

Right now, there is no place in Iraq where it can support itself without help from the U.S. military, without help from the multinational forces. And then of course, the other portion of the issue here in Iraq is the ongoing insurgency and the sectarian violence. It's just not what people anticipated. It continues in a very, very strong way, and that is something that has to be dealt with very effectively -- Paula.

ZAHN: Ryan Chilcote, thanks so much. Of course, U.S. officials are keenly aware that the Iraqi people are very tired of the military occupation of their country, but in an exclusive interview you will see at the top of the hour on "LARRY KING LIVE," Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld says it would be a disaster if U.S. troops come home too soon.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) DONALD RUMSFELD, DEFENSE SECRETARY: The Iraqis would like us to come home. We would like to have our troops come home. Our troops would like to come home.


RUMSFELD: And the question is, we all agree that the last thing we want to do is to come home prematurely, toss in the towel and turn that country over to the terrorists. It would be terrible consequences, for our country, for the American people, for that region, and that's not an acceptable outcome. Quitting is not an exit strategy.

KING: No matter what public opinion says or anything?

RUMSFELD: Well, public opinion -- the American people are going to figure this out.


ZAHN: Well, you can see the complete interview with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld at the top of the hour on "LARRY KING LIVE" tonight. Although there was a very pointed question about whether these -- either one of these leaders would acknowledge that their public standing has been so hurt by this position they've staked out on this war. They couldn't have danced around that one.

ROBERTS: It's pretty obvious.

ZAHN: The obvious: 26 percent in Great Britain for Tony Blair, 31 percent in some polls for President Bush.

ROBERTS: Thirty-six I think in our latest CNN poll. But don't forget, though, President Bush fell a lot further. Tony Blair sort of started at about 48, down to 26. So it's a bigger margin.

But, you know, no question, when you look at the idea now that almost a third of Republicans think going into Iraq was a mistake, in our latest CNN poll, the numbers are really turning around.

BLITZER: You know, Candy, it's interesting. John made this point, but I know you've studied this as well, when the president acknowledged some of the mistakes that he made, some of the words that he used, the influence of his wife, the first lady, very much evident.

CRAWLEY: And, you know, he mentioned this, I think you'll remember, in the debate with John Kerry. Not this particular -- but he mentioned the influence of his wife in how he presents to the public. At that time, he said, you know, don't crack any jokes, stand up straight, that sort of thing.

He gave a speech someplace out in the Midwest, where he was asked specifically about the first lady, and he did say that she had brought up that "bring it on" and "wanted dead or alive" was the wrong language to go with. I recall one of the first times I interviewed George Bush, and this was back when he was running for reelect for governor in Texas, I said something about, well, the nuance of that would be -- and he said, well, you know what, in Texas, we don't do nuance. Well, in Washington, they do nuance. And Laura Bush has been in the forefront of saying, you've got to dial this back.

ROBERTS: I get the sense that she really scolded him for that.

BLITZER: But she has said as much publicly...

ROBERTS: Because he still (inaudible)...

BLITZER: ... in some of her interviews that, you know, she sort of cringed -- in fact, you know, we went back and we pulled that soundbite, when he originally said what he said. I want to play it for our viewers.


BUSH: There are some who feel like, you know, the conditions are such that they can attack us there. My answer is, bring 'em on.


BLITZER: Interesting, John. You were still covering the White House at that time.

KING: The biggest objection to that remark came from military families, who thought that their kids, their sons, their daughters were over in Iraq, the insurgency was just getting really heated, and here was the president of the United States saying, bring it on. That's where the biggest protest to that line came from.

BLITZER: And he said the other thing that really hurt the United States was the whole Abu Ghraib prison, the alleged torture, what had happened there, because the ramifications from that are exploding not only in the Muslim or Arab world, but in Europe, in Asia, elsewhere, because it undermines the ability, John, for the United States to have the moral authority in preaching human rights when these kinds of abuses are well-documented.

ROBERTS: And also pretty clear as well, Wolf, that it was the trigger point, the lit fuse, if you will, for anything that would come down the pike after that. Remember the allegations of Koran abuse at Guantanamo Bay. Everything started to be seen through the prism of Abu Ghraib, that you know, the Americans could no longer say, no, it didn't happen, because they said, no, it didn't happen at Abu Ghraib, and lo and behold it did happen. So that really was a tripping point in terms of the questioning of America's moral credibility.

ZAHN: All right, best political team on TV, please stand by. We're going to come back to you in a couple of moments, but right now we're going to get some reaction from Capitol Hill. Joining me now is Democratic Senator Bill Nelson of Florida. Good of you to join us tonight.

Sir, first of all, your reaction to the news conference tonight? Anything that stood out? SEN. BILL NELSON (D), FLORIDA: The question was not answered, as you all have been discussing at length, about a timetable, and hopefully we can bring troops home once Iraq has been stabilized. But it is a chaotic situation over there, and until you can deal with the sectarian strife, it's going to continue to be.

ZAHN: Senator, you just used the salient phrase, "once Iraq is stabilized." How much faith do you have in the current unity government?

NELSON: I think there are going to have to be changes. I would agree with Senator Biden, that they're going to have to go to more regional governments for the Sunnis, the Shiites and the Kurds. They're going to have to distribute the oil revenue among each of the parts, since the Sunni central sector doesn't have any oil revenue, and I think that in addition to that, we're going to have to have an international conference of the major world powers, and they're going to have to convince the nations in the neighborhood, get their agreement, that they will not interfere in the internal affairs of Iraq. Then maybe the government of Iraq will have a chance to stop this sectarian fighting and have a political solution.

BLITZER: Senator, is Congressman John Murtha, Democrat of Pennsylvania, right when he says the U.S. should re-deploy right away, get out of there, and let the Iraqis handle the situation themselves?

NELSON: I don't agree with the congressman in that regard, because you've got to be able to get a political solution. If we pull our troops out, there's not going to be a chance for a political solution. But hopefully, if they will do the things that others and I have just suggested, that there is a chance for a political solution, and then by the end of the year, hopefully, we can start drawing down our troops.

ZAHN: Senator Bill Nelson, we appreciate you joining us. We know you've had a very busy day particularly on the Hill, with that important vote on immigration today.

BLITZER: Yes, lots happening here.

ZAHN: We haven't even talked about that tonight.

BLITZER: I know.

ZAHN: We thought that would come up in the news conference, but it didn't.

BLITZER: A lot of stuff happening here in Washington. James Carville and Terry Jeffrey are regular members of our "Strategy Session," are here as well.

Why don't we get your reaction. First, James, to you. How do you think the president and the prime minister did?

JAMES CARVILLE, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: I mean, I think they did fine, I mean, in terms of what they said. It sort of struck me -- the thought I had is, is there's something to be said here. Here's a country of 25 million people. We have the president of the United States, the prime minister of Great Britain, completely bogged down. Obviously, the prime minister looked like he was tired. He just got in from Baghdad this afternoon, but it is amazing how the consequence of this that took place a little over three years ago, how it has both countries really obsessed and the leaders of both countries obsessed. I don't think they really said anything knew, but they both did fine. I mean, nobody did anything stupid, I don't think.

ZAHN: Did it help either one of them? Did the concessions by the president mean anything to the American public?

TERRY JEFFREY, EDITOR, "HUMAN EVENTS": I don't think the concessions are particularly important. I note that -- you know, he talked about -- the rhetoric of the president, particularly on foreign policy, is important. It matters to people around the world. It sends a signal to our enemies and our friends. But you know, the president, while conceding he may not -- he shouldn't have said those things, he didn't really apologize for any particular command decisions he made as president or the substantive policies or the direction of his foreign policy.

I think the one thing that the president did get tonight is the ability in a high-profile situation to explain to the American people that there has in fact been real political progress in Iraq. We're still taking casualties there, it's still a tough situation, but we do in fact have a constitutional elected government on the ground in Baghdad. There are Sunnis in there. There's not yet a defense minister, there's a long way to go. But there has been progress made politically.

BLITZER: Not yet a defense minister, not yet an interior minister, which arguably may even be more important than a defense minister. The interior minister in Iraq, unlike the interior secretary here in the United States, is in charge of police, security, homeland security. So arguably the two most important portfolios, defense and interior, have not been achieved.

But it's very interesting, Paula. The president opened up the news conference, in his opening statement, with an acknowledgement of a major failure going into the war, when he acknowledged that the whole weapons of mass destruction issue simply failed to materialize. Let's listen to what he said.


BUSH: We did not find the weapons of mass destruction that we all believed were there. And that's raised questions about whether the sacrifice in Iraq has been worth it. Despite said facts and missteps, I strongly believe we did and are doing the right thing.


BLITZER: It's interesting, James. I think the president does better when he acknowledges mistakes that were clearly made that everyone recognizes those mistakes, instead of saying as he did at a news conference not all that long ago when he was asked about mistakes he made, and he couldn't think of any off the top of his head.

CARVILLE: Right. And then he talked about setbacks, too. I mean, if you looked at that entire take, just for him to say -- which of course we know that there were not weapons of mass destruction, it was (inaudible), and then he said setbacks and missteps along the way, which is a further acknowledgement.

And I think John King deserves a lot of credit for pointing out that the president did say this during the inaugural period in 2004. What it shows me is that when your wife is mad at you for something, you know about it. And he was pretty doggone contrite that night, and I think probably maybe Mrs. Bush gave him a wood shampoo on that thing. And that -- that -- it makes a difference. No matter if you're president of the United States or you're president of the plumbers union, if your wife gets on you, you're going to be one contrite little puppy, I'll tell you that, and I know that from personal experience.

BLITZER: You're married to Mary Matalin.

ZAHN: He would know.


ZAHN: He's been there before.

I guess the one thing that really surprised me was Tony Blair's admission that somehow they underestimated the power of the enemies and their determination that this doesn't succeed in Iraq.

JEFFREY: You know, that was a major...

ZAHN: Isn't that something that everybody should have counted on?

JEFFREY: Well, there is no doubt. I mean, there's the one intelligence failure, that we thought that Saddam Hussein had these weapons of mass destruction. The British intelligence said that he did. Our intelligence said that he did. We were wrong.

There was also the miscalculation of what the political reality would be on the ground in Iraq after we got in there and the Saddam regime was gone.

You know, I noticed there's a similarity and dissimilarity between President Bush and Tony Blair's view of the world. President Bush seems to be a Wilsonian who's not an internationalist. He's not into the United Nations, he's not into all these global institutions. He looks at the United States acting in its interest in the world, but he believes that interest involves advancing freedom and ending tyranny and spreading democracy around the globe.

Tony Blair is a true man of the left. He sees these international institutions and a new world order, where the U.N. is at the top and all these other subsidiary global institutions are going to really lead the way to peace and harmony in the world. So they're halfway on the same page, but not totally.

BLITZER: The president...


BLITZER: The president's disdain for the U.N. clearly came through, though, at least the U.N. as it currently exists.

Guys, thanks very much. Let's see how all of this is playing back in London. Joining us now from 10 Downing Street, our European political editor, Robin Oakley.

Robin, listen first of all to this exchange that Tony Blair had with a member of the British press. Listen to this.


QUESTION: ... to Washington as prime minister.

BUSH: Wait a minute.


Back-to-back disses.

QUESTION: At least the beginning of the end of your particular special relationship. Will you miss the president? What will you miss about him?

And for the president, what will you miss about Tony Blair and what are you looking for in an eventual replacement?

BUSH: I'll miss those red ties is what I'll miss.


I'll say one thing. He can answer the question. Don't count him out; let me tell it to you that way. I know 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.


BLITZER: Robin, we clipped the beginning part of that question, when the reporter asked if this probably was going to be Tony Blair's last visit to Washington to meet with the president. Tell our viewers what is going on as far as Tony Blair and domestic politics in Britain.

ROBIN OAKLEY, CNN SR. EUROPEAN EDITOR: Well, certainly it's the expectation of most here in British politics, Wolf, that this will be the last visit that he'll make as a British prime minister. Most people expect Tony Blair to disappear from the scene sometime next summer, when he'll complete 10 years in the post.

And really he's been under desperate pressure. And I think President George Bush was maybe meddling a little dangerously in British politics there when he said he wanted Tony Blair around so long as he's president. That's 2009, isn't it? Well, Tony Blair could theoretically stay on if he stays pretty well to the time of the next election, as he originally promised to.

But he's been promising his friend next door in 11 Downing Street here, Gordon Brown, the man who wants his job, that pretty well he'll be out by next summer. And that's what most of the lawmakers in Tony Blair's Labor Party want. They want a fresh face, they want a new start. They've seen how he's tumbled in the polls, largely because of Iraq. They want somebody new in the job, and Tony Blair is really fighting for his position these days, Wolf.

BLITZER: Very quickly, Robin, does this visit by Tony Blair to Washington, this news conference, the speeches he's going to deliver at Georgetown University tomorrow, help or hurt Tony Blair back in Britain?

OAKLEY: Without any doubt at all, they harm Tony Blair. Every time he comes over to see President George Bush, he topples another couple of points in the opinion polls. It doesn't get him seen as an international statesman, it gets him seen as America's poodle. And that does him no good with his own party, no good with the British public, as far as this particular president is concerned, Wolf.

BLITZER: Robin Oakley, at 10 Downing Street for us, thank you, Robin. I guess that explains, Paula, why the British probably weren't all that upset that this news conference, 7:30 p.m. Eastern here in the United States, was airing at 12:30 a.m. back in London, where most people presumably were sleeping.

ZAHN: Of course you could TiVo it, but I doubt that they were doing that, either.

BLITZER: I don't know a lot of people who would want to be doing that.

ZAHN: Of course, we talked a bit about how neither leader would address the issue of when troops would come out of Iraq, a specific timetable, but that is a big question tonight. When will coalition forces start coming home?

Now, during an exclusive interview this afternoon, our own Larry King asked Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld if that is still a year away.

And we thought we would hear from the secretary. I don't know what the answer is.

BLITZER: Here it is right now. Let's listen.

ZAHN: We're going to have to watch.


RUMSFELD: Once you start doing that, then you're stuck with a number, a date, and it just doesn't do any good. It's based on conditions on the ground. There's no question that it's our desire to reduce the forces, and we intend to. And the Iraqis intend for us to. And the question is, what -- at what pace can we continue to go up towards the 325,000 Iraqi security force target goal, and what's the intensity of the insurgency? And how fast can they take over that responsibility? As far as we're concerned, the faster the better.


ZAHN: Well, you can see the entire exclusive interview tonight at the top of the hour with Larry King.

BLITZER: In only about three minutes from now, that interview with the secretary of defense and Larry King will air.

Let's in the meantime bring in our military analyst, retired U.S. Air Force Major General Don Shepperd.

Is this the kind of comments from the defense secretary, from the president, that troops on the ground in Iraq, the 130,000, 135,000 U.S. troops really want to hear, that there's no really end in sight, it's still yet to be determined when they're going to be coming home?

MAJ. GEN. DON SHEPPERD (RET), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: No, Wolf, of course they'd like to hear that they're going to come home, it's time to come home, and they'd like to hear a timetable, but it's very clear that that is not going to come out.

Politics in this country and politics in Iraq are both going to have a big play in what goes on here no matter what is said. The only way out of Iraq is to train the Iraqi security forces, take some chances as we leave, and when we leave, we are not going to know whether we won or lost. That's just the way it is going to be. We're taking chances as we depart, Wolf.

ZAHN: You're not a man to make casual guesses about this. You've studied this a lot. We just heard the secretary talk about this target goal of getting 325,000 Iraqi troops in place. What do you think is realistic? When might that happen?

SHEPPERD: I think you can get that number in place sometime next year. The problem is how effective are they? And the fact that you have a new defense minister or a new interior minister is not going to overnight make these troops effective.

Also, they are not going to be able to support themselves for a long time. So I think if we do it right, we'll be there several years with support of those forces, although we could certainly start to withdraw, because the pressure is in both places, this year and next year, Paula.

ZAHN: He also talked about the intensity of the insurgency movement being a big question mark as well.

BLITZER: What's a bigger problem, General Shepperd? You've been there several times. Is it the sectarian strife that's going on right now, the battles between the Shia and the Sunnis, or is it the insurgency led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi?

SHEPPERD: It's both. The insurgency is very serious, but the militia violence that takes place is extremely serious. You have to get those militias at some point disarmed. They're not going to be disarmed until they think they have an Iraqi government in which they can provide -- the Iraqi government can provide security for them, and it's not going to happen in the next couple of months. This is going to be a tough road for a long time, Wolf.

BLITZER: General Shepperd, thanks as usual for joining us.

Paula, it's very interesting that the president and the prime minister, they're continuing their talks right now at the White House. Presumably tomorrow, we'll see what else emerges.

ZAHN: And Wolf and I now want to thank all of our guests who joined us tonight, the best political team on TV. Chief national correspondent John King, senior political correspondent Candy Crowley Senior national correspondent John Roberts. Along with White House correspondent Suzanne Malveaux, and, of course, my partner here tonight, Wolf Blitzer. You can come visit me in my hour any time you want.

BLITZER: I'll be happy to. Thank you.

ZAHN: If you want me to come into your hour, 7:00 o'clock.

BLITZER: Welcome back to Washington.

ZAHN: Thank you. Nice to be back again.

Thank you so much for joining us tonight. A reminder: "LARRY KING LIVE" is next, and as you hears us say before, his special guest -- Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

Thanks again for joining us tonight. Good night.


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