Tony Blair on Iraq: 'We Need to Act Urgently'


That statement, coming ahead of Blair's Middle East visit, also seemed to bring Bush closer to Blair and the Baker-Hamilton group. The study group recommended that the Bush administration tie the Iraqi struggle to a larger effort to resolve the Israeli conflict with the Palestinian territories. The president noted that Islamic extremists had embroiled not only Iraq but Lebanon, Israel and Afghanistan as well.

For Blair, the meeting held fewer perils than for Bush. Following midterm elections that gave Democrats control of the House and Senate largely on the strength of the American public's growing opposition to the Iraq War, the president is under intense pressure to change course.

Blair had already committed to withdrawing British troops next year and had previously agreed to some of the key suggestions later made by the Iraq Study Group, a point Blair seized on after his meeting with Bush.

Blair declared that "it is important that we do everything we can in the wider Middle East to bring about peace between Israel and the Palestinians."

Bush declined to endorse the Baker-Hamilton report's recommendation to pull out combat troops not needed for force protection, training or special operations missions by March 2008. But noting that the report said doing so would depend on conditions on the ground, he left the door open.

"I thought that made a lot of sense," Bush said. I've always said we'd like our troops out as fast as possible. I think that's an important goal."

Blair was critical of a suggestion by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., to increase troop levels.

"The problem is this. If, when you surge the American forces, the Iraqi capability isn't there to come in behind it, then your respite is only temporary," Blair said.

Blair said in the interview that he opposes any definite withdrawal date.

"I think we've got a plan to succeed," he said, "and I think that if we start saying to the people that we're fighting in Iraq that we're ready to get out, irrespective of the success of the mission, I think that would be very serious for us."

But the elements for success in Iraq exist, Blair said.

"I'm convinced the elements are there, yes. And what I'm also convinced of is that the tough challenge is doing it, making it happen. Identifying what needs to happen is -- I don't say it's easy, but I think it is relatively straightforward. Getting it done requires immense focus and attention."

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