Sun, May 28, 2006 - Page 7 News List

Iraqi regime needs support: Blair

SPEAKING OUT The UK prime minister said that regardless of whether people believed the Iraq war was justified or not, they should back Iraq's struggle to establish democracy


British Prime Minister Tony Blair says fledgling democracy in Iraq deserves support even from critics who question whether sacrifices in the 3-year-old war have been worthwhile.

"The war, I know, split the world," Blair said on Friday. "The struggle of Iraqis for democracy should unite it."

Blair met with US President George W. Bush over two days this week, following a visit to Baghdad to meet with Iraq's new political leaders.

The US and Britain hope formation of Iraq's first permanent democratic government will improve security and build confidence, which they hope would speed the time when their combined 140,000 troops can leave.

"We can argue forever about the merits of removing Saddam," but that is not the point, Blair said in the speech at Georgetown University.

"You may not agree with the original decision. You may believe mistakes have been made. You may even think, `How can it be worth the sacrifice?"' Blair said. "But surely we must all accept this is a genuine attempt to run the race of liberty."

Blair said he was impressed with Iraq's multiethnic leaders. As long as they are willing to fight terrorism and violence, he said, they should have the world's support.

"These weren't stooges or place-men. They believe in their country. They believe in its capacity to be democratic," he said. "They are fighting against the odds, it is true, but they are fighting."

Blair argued, as Bush does, that a democratic bulwark in Iraq can help change the Middle East.

He said little about Iran, which represents another brewing problem in the region that has also divided world opinion.

"I don't believe we will be secure unless Iran changes," Blair said. "I emphasize, I am not saying we should impose change."

Britain has once again sided with the US as it presses for tough international action to contain Iran's nuclear program, but both nations say the idea of another invasion or attack is far-fetched.

The UN Security Council is reviewing Iran's disputed nuclear activities, but the council's veto-holding members have been divided over whether to seek sanctions or other measures enforceable by military action.

At their White House news conference on Thursday, Bush and Blair were defensive when they would have preferred to celebrate the recent political success in Baghdad.

Bush acknowledged the bloodshed has been difficult for the world to understand. Blair called the violence "ghastly."

But, Bush said at the White House, "Despite setbacks and missteps, I strongly believe we did and are doing the right thing."

Blair, who was leaving late on Friday, had lunch with Bush. They later issued a statement that said the US has no closer ally than Britain and announced new actions to intensify electronic and other cooperation among US and British military and civilian personnel.

Britain has been demanding access to specific software codes and weapons systems of the multinational, US$256 billion Joint Strike Fighter project. The project is to develop three variants of a stealth fighter plane for the US and eight of its allies, including Britain.

The statement says that the two nations have signed an agreement that lets properly cleared British and US personnel use the same computer network to access military and intelligence information and other planning tools to support joint military operations.

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