Bush, Blair pledge victory 'no matter how long it takes'

CAMP DAVID - Refusing to estimate how long the war might last, President Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain vowed yesterday to sustain the military campaign in Iraq for as long as it takes to oust Saddam Hussein's regime and rid the country of weapons of mass destruction.

The leaders, speaking to reporters during their two-day meeting at this presidential retreat, asserted that stiffer-than-expected Iraqi resistance has not diminished their resolve.

"It isn't a matter of timetable; it's a matter of victory," Bush insisted, jabbing his finger on his lectern for emphasis. "Saddam Hussein will be removed, no matter how long it takes."

The two close allies and their advisers have faced pointed questions in recent days about whether the war could drag on for much longer than many people had been led to believe.

Polls showed that Americans and Britons had taken signals from their leaders that the war would be swift and relatively bloodless for their troops. Though the war has lasted only a little more than a week, polls show that tough Iraqi resistance, especially from paramilitary forces waging a kind of guerrilla campaign, has led to fears that the war could be long and difficult.

The president seemed to acknowledge that reality, warning, "The campaign ahead will demand further courage and require further sacrifice."

Analysts have said Americans would be less likely to support war if it persisted for months. The war was already a political risk for both leaders, in the face of sharp international opposition, and the risk would likely grow if the conflict raged on.

Blair said the duration of war is "not set by time" but "by the nature of the job." The coalition, he added, made substantial progress in the first week, including a fast movement of American and British forces toward Baghdad, the securing of oil fields and the hampering of Hussein's ability to fire missiles at Israel from western Iraq.

"There is a massive amount that has been achieved," Blair said. "Now, we will carry on until the job is done."

The two also called for the United Nations to resume its "oil-for-food" program, which aids a majority of Iraq's population but was suspended once war broke out. The program is likely to restart by next week.

Bush and Blair highlighted their agreement on that program but were not eager to discuss their differences over the United Nations' role in a postwar Iraq.

Blair wants the world body to play a central role in rebuilding Iraq and establishing a new government. Bush is thought to favor a smaller role for the United Nations, and a larger one for the United States.

A senior Bush administration official said last night that the president agrees with Blair that the United Nations should endorse a postwar administration, "but what will be a post-conflict administration we're going to have to wait and see until we're on the ground."

Pressure mounted on Capitol Hill, meanwhile, for the administration to step up diplomatic efforts at the United Nations to reach a broad agreement on governing a postwar Iraq.

More than 40 House Republicans and Democrats wrote to Bush, urging him to seek a new Security Council resolution to ensure swift humanitarian relief and to set the terms for governing Iraq under U.N. auspices. The lawmakers, including Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Southern Maryland, the Democratic whip, said that such action by the United States would help heal wounds at the United Nations.

Bush and Blair, speaking to reporters inside a helicopter hangar at this retreat in Maryland's Catoctin Mountains, appear to have developed a close bond over the past two years, and especially over the past few months. They have stood together while enduring stiff opposition to war from other countries. But they have not wavered from their insistence that Hussein's hold on power threatens the world.

The leaders seem natural now speaking alongside each other and at ease in different roles.

Bush often frames issues in stark terms of good and evil, with a plain-spoken forcefulness that his aides say mirrors President Ronald Reagan's style in confronting communism. Blair tends to speak in more nuanced ways but is just as insistent on confronting Hussein's regime.

Blair acknowledged that the conflict has angered traditional allies of the United States and Britain. The rift, he said, will have to be addressed and dealt with - but only after Hussein's regime is toppled.

"There is no point in hiding it - there has been a division," Blair said. But "if the world walks away from the security threat facing us, and if we back down and take no action against Saddam, think of the signal that would have sent right across the world to every brutal dictator, to every terrorist group."

Asked why many Western allies were not supporting the war, Bush seemed a bit irritated that the issue continues to come up.

"We have plenty of Western allies," he said. "I mean, we can give you the list. Ally after ally after ally has stood with us and continues to stand with us. And we are extremely proud of their participation."

For Bush, the relationship forged with Blair has served as some vindication for his personal diplomacy. Many doubted he could develop a rapport with a man who was closely aligned with President Bill Clinton.

"America has learned a lot about Tony Blair over the last weeks," Bush said. "We've learned that he's a man of his word. We've learned that he's a man of courage, that he's a man of vision."

The two leaders angrily charged that Iraqi troops had "executed" two British soldiers. The release of a photo of "executed British soldiers," Blair said, is "yet one more flagrant breach of all the proper conventions of war" and "is beyond the comprehension of anyone with an ounce of humanity in their souls."

Blair indicated he has evidence that the soldiers had been executed but did not elaborate.

Bush said the killing violated international law. "They were murdered - unarmed soldiers executed," he said. "I mean, that's a war crime."

Officials are studying ways that Iraqis can be tried for war crimes committed on the battlefield against U.S. forces, such as mistreatment of prisoners of war. Possibilities include courts-martial or military commissions.

"Our view is that those responsible should be tried before an Iraqi-led process," a senior State Department official said.

The State Department sought yesterday to discourage an effort by Iraqi opposition figures to name a provisional government. Meeting in northern Iraq, the Council of the Leadership of the Iraqi Opposition has declared that once Hussein's regime is ousted, the council will declare the formation of an independent provisional government.

Richard Boucher, the State Department spokesman, said, "We do not support the creation of a provisional government by the outside Iraqi opposition at this time." He said Iraq's future needs would be determined, in part, by "the broadest possible grouping of Iraqis" from both inside and outside the country.

The demand by Bush and Blair for the immediate resumption of the U.N. oil-for-food aid program for Iraq came as the U.N. Security Council is close to approving the resumption of the program, diplomats said.

Under the program, sales of Iraqi oil could be used by Iraq to buy food, medicine and other civilian goods.

A new U.N. resolution is expected to put the oil-for-food program under the control of Kofi Annan, the U.N. secretary general. Such authority would allow him to approve new contracts and renegotiate existing ones that had been signed by the Iraqi government. Germany, one of the Security Council's leading opponents of the Iraq war, has tried to broker the new resolution, diplomats said.

Bush left the window open for the war to go on indefinitely, a day after he chose to drop from a speech he was to deliver a line that said the war was progressing "ahead of schedule."

A senior administration official was reminded last night that Vice President Dick Cheney had suggested earlier this month that the war would last "weeks rather than months." The official was asked whether expectations had since changed.

"The fact is, the president has never put a timetable on this," the official said.

Sun staff writer Julie Hirschfeld Davis contributed to this article.

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