Bush calls Iraq mission 'watershed for global democracy'

Less than two weeks before what may be a stormy state visit to London, President George Bush yesterday cast himself as a new Ronald Reagan, vowing to bring freedom and democracy to the Middle East and beyond - just as Mr Reagan did with the Soviet Union, in his "evil empire" address to the British Parliament 21 years ago.

Speaking on the day he signed into law the Bill authorising $87bn (£52bn) of extra funding for Iraq and Afghanistan, Mr Bush set out his vision of a modernised and democratic Iraq serving as example throughout the region.

Separately, administration officials confirmed that they had received a behind-the-scenes proposal, supposedly from Saddam Hussein, offering a deal last March to stave off the looming war. But the contact was rebuffed by the CIA.

Though experts said the move may have been of little significance, critics presented the episode as further proof that Mr Bush would let nothing interfere with his determination to go to war.

In his speech yesterday Mr Bush once again made no reference to mounting US casualties in Iraq, including two more fatal attacks yesterday, bringing to 142 the death toll since he declared the end of major combat operations. Nor did he refer to the strains on the military, and yesterday's Pentagon announcement that 132,000 troops and reservists will be sent to relieve units who have been in the region for a year. Instead he stressed that failure in Iraq would embolden terrorists around the world, but "the establishment of a free Iraq will be a watershed event in the global democratic revolution."

That, clearly, is the message he will deliver during his address to an audience of dignitaries in London on 19 November, the centrepiece of his state visit. And his references to the dismissive reaction to Mr Reagan's speech in Westminster Hall left no doubt that he is expecting more of the same for himself. "It seems hard to be a sophisticated European and also an admirer of Ronald Reagan," Mr Bush yesterday quoted from a newspaper editorial of the time, recalling how some observers had pronounced the "evil empire" speech to be "simplistic and naïve, and even dangerous". In fact the current unpopularity of Mr Bush and his administration - widely perceived in Europe as high-handed, arrogant and ignorant - eclipses that of Mr Reagan in 1982, at the height of the Cold War. But Mr Bush stressed he would not be deterred.

Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East had done nothing to make the world safer, the President told the National Endowment for Democracy here. "It would be reckless to accept the status quo," he declared, defending his doctrine of pre-emptive action as "a forward strategy of freedom". He attacked the "outposts of oppression" in Cuba, Zimbabwe, North Korea and Burma, but praised Morocco and other Arab states such as Yemen, Bahrain and Jordan, who are gingerly taking steps towards democracy. He called on Egypt and Saudi Arabia to move faster along the path of reform, and delivered familiar tirades against leaders in Iran and Palestine who were blocking their peoples' aspirations to freedom.

* A British soldier died in a road crash in southern Iraq yesterday morning. The death brings the total number of British soldiers killed in Iraq to 53. A spokesman for British forces in Basra, southern Iraq, said the soldier was from the Royal Regiment of Wales. Nobody else was injured and there were no reports of hostile action.