Bush joins Blair in defence of war and says troops may stay for years

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The Independent US

George Bush hinted yesterday that US troops would remain in Iraq for years. He also rejected widespread demands for the replacement of his Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld.

President Bush was joined in his defence of the war by Tony Blair who told an audience in London that although it was "debatable" whether it was right to invade Iraq, even his critics must realise the West has to support Iraqi democracy against the terrorists.

"This is not a clash between civilisations but a clash about civilisation," Mr Blair claimed, in the first of a series of three major speeches about foreign policy, timed to mark the third anniversary of the Iraq war.

Defending Iraq's elected government is "a cause that has none of the debatable nature of the decisions to go for regime change; it is an entirely noble one," Mr Blair insisted.

"Naturally, the debate over the wisdom of the original decisions, especially in Iraq, will continue. Opponents will say Iraq was never a threat; there were no WMD; the drug trade in Afghanistan continues. I will point out that Iraq was indeed a threat."

In his speech to the Foreign Policy Centre at Canary Wharf, Mr Blair claimed the "true division" in foreign policy is between those who want a "closed" policy of "benign neglect", and those who believe in an "open" policy that tackles terrorism, injustice, poverty and environmental degradation "with equal vigour".

Mr Bush's surprise White House press conference was the latest instalment of a campaign to persuade a sceptical public that America can, and will, win the war against the insurgents. "I'm optimistic we'll succeed," Mr Bush said. "If not, I'd pull our troops out. If I didn't believe we had a plan for victory, I wouldn't leave our people in harm's way."

Instead, he signalled that a full pullout of US troops would not happen during the near three years in office that remain to him. It would be for "future presidents and future governments of Iraq" to decide whether all US forces in the country - more than 130,000 - should be withdrawn.

The protracted war has played a big part in driving Mr Bush's poll ratings down to barely 35 per cent, and calls have multiplied for a shake-up in his administration. Yesterday, he left that possibility open but went out of his way to defend Mr Rumsfeld.

The President admitted that mistakes had been made in dealing with the Iraqi insurgency and rebuilding the country. But he did not believe his Pentagon chief should resign. "He's done a fine job," he said of Mr Rumsfeld.

"Every [war] plan looks good on paper until you meet the enemy," Mr Bush said, speaking a day after a major speech in Cleveland intended to rally support for the war, now entering its fourth year.

Mr Blair, too, was defending the war, and his decision to join the US-led invasion of 2003. He said he believed in intervening against any government or movement that encouraged or abetted foreign policy targeted at Islamic extremists and its supporters, including Iran and Syria, and separatists in Chechnya and Kashmir - though he added that he did not mean military intervention in every case.

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