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Rebuilding Iraq


Bush, Blair press UN postwar role

By Anne E. Kornblut, Globe Staff, 04/09/2003

BELFAST -- Emerging from hours of closed-door meetings yesterday, President Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain called on the United Nations to play a "vital role" in providing humanitarian aid to a postwar Iraq.

But the two leaders of the coalition against Saddam Hussein purposely sidestepped the controversial question of who would administer the new government in Iraq, setting the stage for a new round of UN negotiations.

"I hear a lot of talk about how we're going to impose this leader or that leader. Forget it," Bush said, insisting that the country will ultimately be run by the Iraqis themselves.

He did not mention that Pentagon officials are sending emissaries to the country this week to begin laying the groundwork for the interim government.

For Bush and Blair, who stood side by side at Hillsborough Castle against a backdrop of British and American flags, the meeting was designed to showcase their vision beyond the war. The military action has fueled outrage around the world despite its rapid progress in just 21 days.

Blair is especially concerned about repairing relations between the United States and Europe. And he hopes to use the leverage he has with Bush to push the administration on moving the Middle East peace process forward and assisting with the Northern Ireland power-sharing arrangement.

Bush and Blair each gave optimistic reports from the battlefield, mirroring images broadcast around the world showing the forceful coalition incursion into Baghdad.

On Saddam Hussein, Bush said, "I don't know whether he survived. The only thing I know is he's losing power."

"That grip I used to describe that Saddam had around the throats of the Iraqi people are loosening," he said, making the gesture of a hand clamped around a neck. "I can't tell you if all ten fingers are off the throat, but finger by finger, it's coming off.

"And the people are beginning to realize that. It's important for the Iraqi people to continue to hear this message: We will not stop until they are free."

Blair, in something of a slight to Bush's father, said the Iraqi dictator's grip on power has been taken away, unlike during the first Persian Gulf war.

"He has ruled by fear, but as the knowledge sinks in that we will get the job done, the people realize there's not going to be a repeat of 1991, there's not going to be a repeat of the past. The power of Saddam is ending," Blair said.

On Monday night, US warplanes dropped "bunker buster" bombs on a building where Hussein reportedly was meeting with his sons, but the site was still under Iraqi control yesterday, and American troops did not know whether anyone was killed.

With the end of the hostilities in sight, and as the White House moves ahead with plans to arrange the interim government, the members of the war coalition face a new challenge: persistent tensions with nations that want a UN lead role in rebuilding Iraq.

European countries, such as France and Germany, vocal opponents of the US-led war, have insisted on a greater UN role after the conflict.

Although Bush insisted that the international community would have a role, he suggested yesterday that it would be mostly to give humanitarian aid, not to arrange the lucrative oil and construction contracts involved in rebuilding a country.

Asked to elaborate on what he meant when he said the United Nations would play a "vital role" in Iraq, a phrase that he and Blair both use repeatedly, he responded, "I view a vital role as a agent to help people live freely."

"That means food, that means medicine, that means aid, that means a place where people can give their contributions, that means suggesting people for the IIA [interim Iraqi authority], that means being a party to the progress being made in Iraq," he said. "And a vital role for the United Nations means a vital role for the United Nations."

Earlier this week, a Bush administration official said that while US lawyers will prosecute war crimes committed against American troops, the Iraqi people will be encouraged to set up their own tribunal for crimes committed during Hussein's regime.

Talks on Northern Ireland were something relatively new for Bush, who has mostly delegated matters of Irish affairs to an official at the US State Department. Bush met yesterday with political leaders from Northern Ireland, including Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams, and said he was "honored to have been asked to be here to help move the process along."

The 1998 power-sharing agreement in Northern Ireland that set up a Protestant-Catholic Assembly and diminished decades of violence has been stalled since last autumn, when members of a splinter IRA group were accused of spying on government officials. Blair hopes to jump-start negotiations on the agreement tomorrow, when he and Prime Minister Bertie Ahearn of Ireland release their road map on Northern Ireland.

"To those who can sometimes say that the process in the Middle East is hopeless, I say we can look at Northern Ireland and take some hope from that," Blair said.

After their lunch together, Bush boarded a flight home to Washington.

Like Blair, Bush held up the Good Friday agreement as proof that peace can be achieved elsewhere, and made his most ambitious promise to date about seeking an end to the conflict in the Middle East.

"Being here in Northern Ireland even makes me even more firm in my belief that peace is possible," he said.

"I've talked at length with the prime minister about how hard he had to work to bring the process this far. I'm willing to expend the same amount of energy in the Middle East. . . . It's the same vision we need to have in the Middle East."

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