Friday, May 26, 2006

Bush says "bring 'em on" was big mistake

Bush says "bring 'em on" was big mistake
By Steve Holland

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President George W. Bush admitted on Thursday that his bellicose "bring 'em on" taunt to Iraqi insurgents was a big mistake, as he and British Prime Minister Tony Blair carefully avoided setting a timetable for removing troops from Iraq.

Meeting at a time when a new Iraqi unity government offers the promise of a way out of an unpopular war that has damaged their standings at home, Bush and Blair were remarkably reflective on some of the grievous mistakes that critics say has intensified anti-American sentiment in the Middle East.

Back in July 2003, the tough-talking Texan responded to a question about the emerging Iraqi insurgency by saying "bring 'em on."

At a joint news conference with Blair, after three years of war that has killed more than 2,400 Americans and thousands of Iraqis, Bush said that remark was "kind of tough talk, you know, that sent the wrong message 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," he said.

He also cited the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal as "the biggest mistake that's happened so far, at least from our country's involvement in Iraq ... We've been paying for that for a long period of time," he said.

Blair said the effort to rid Iraq's army of members of Saddam Hussein's Baathists -- a process called "de-Baathification -- could have been done better.

"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," Blair said.

Both leaders predicted difficulties ahead as the new government tries to expand the influence of Iraqi security forces into more territory.

Blair said "probably over the next few months there will be a real attempt by the anti-democratic forces to test them very, very strongly."

Bush said Baghdad needs a more effective police force and that Gen. George Casey, his top commander in Iraq, had met with new Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki on Thursday on how to improve security in the capital.

"It's really important that Baghdad, that the capital city become more secure," he said.


The two leaders are under pressure at home to show progress in Iraq so they can start withdrawing their forces. There are now about 132,000 U.S. troops and 8,000 British troops in the chaotic country.

Blair, who recently visited Baghdad, said he believed it was possible to meet Maliki's goal of having Iraqi security forces in control of all of Iraq by the end of 2007.

Said Bush: "Listen, I want our troops out -- don't get me wrong. I understand what it means to have troops in harm's way ... But I also understand that it is vital that we do the job, that we complete the mission."

Bush said he would consult with his military commanders in Iraq about the security situation, as well as with the new Iraqi government about its needs and that any decision would be made based on the conditions on the ground.

Blair said that "Inevitably, over time, we have to transfer responsibility" because it will be 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 as for now, he said, "This directly elected Iraqi government has said they want us to stay until the job is done."

Both leaders acknowledged the decision to invade Iraq in 2003 had been divisive, but agreed it was time to look to the future now that the Iraqis had gone to the polls and freely elected a new government.

"It is our duty, but it is also the duty of the whole international community to get behind this government and support it," Blair said.

In Baghdad, gunmen shot and seriously wounded a senior Defense Ministry official, in what appeared to be part of a campaign to target top figures in Iraq's U.S.-backed administration. It was a reminder of the uphill struggle Maliki faces.

The new prime minister, in an interview with Arabiya television, said there was no reason for the array of armed gangs and militias in Iraq, now that the country had an elected government. He said the real problem for the government was the armed gangs, rather than the organized militias.