President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, standing united on two turbulent fronts, endorsed giving the United Nations broad control over Iraq's political future Friday and said a much-criticized Israeli settlement withdrawal plan is a solid move toward Mideast peace.
Blair seconded Bush's comment about going through a hard time in Iraq, where violence is spreading and casualties are climbing. "It was never going to be easy and it isn't now," said the British leader, a strong supporter of Bush's strategies in Iraq, the Middle East and elsewhere despite harsh criticism and even ridicule at home.
Palestinian and other Arab leaders have been outraged that Bush endorsed Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon''s strategy to keep Jewish settlements on the West Bank and refuse Palestinian refugees the right to return to Israel, a fundamental shift in American policy.
Blair gave unqualified support to Bush's view that Sharon's plan represents a step forward — not backward — for Palestinians' statehood aspirations.
"Let's not look this particular opportunity in the eye and then turn away," Blair said. "I don't think that this ends anyone's dream." He urged other nations and international organizations to explore ways to help Palestinian leaders seize an opportunity.
Bush called on the Palestinian people to do their part by finding "leadership that is committed to peace and hope." The administration refuses to deal with Yasser Arafat.
Both Bush and Blair defended Sharon's intentions, insisting that the Israeli leader wants a state for Palestinians.
"The impression I got from having sat with the man right upstairs here in the White House was he views it as a hopeful moment as well," Bush said.
On Iraq, the two said any retreat from the planned June 30 transfer of power from the U.S.-led occupation authority to Iraqis would be unthinkable — despite the recent violence. The United States has about 130,000 troops in Iraq, while British soldiers make up the next-largest contingent, with 12,000.
Bush said of the Iraqis, "If they believe that we'll cut and run, in other words, if times get tough, we'll just say, `See you later,' nobody is going to take a stand for freedom and liberty."
Blair denounced the recent attacks "from every variety of reactionary forces" who do not want to see a democratic Iraq.
"We will do what it takes to win this struggle," he said. "We will not yield. We will not back down in the face of attacks, either on us or on defenseless civilians."
The leaders, hoping to put a more international face on the U.S.- and British-dominated coalition, warmly welcomed a work-in-progress proposal from U.N. Iraq envoy Lakhdar Brahimi on transferring sovereignty.
"We're actually trying to work with the U.N. now, because everybody understands the importance of fulfilling that objective," Blair said.
Brahimi envisions a caretaker government led by a prime minister, with a president as head of state, two vice presidents and a conference to create a consultative assembly with no legislative powers. The envoy is due to report his plan to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, then return to Baghdad for more talks.
Bush called Brahimi's outline "a way forward to establishing an interim government that is broadly acceptable to the Iraqi people," and he signaled his support for the continued work of the envoy — and the United Nations — in Iraq.
Bush and Blair, who last met in November at the British leader's home in rural England, dismissed questions about the motives behind their Iraq policies. Like Bush, Blair has seen his public support drop and has been forced to support the creation of a commission to examine the prewar intelligence on Iraq as the weapons that were once a primary justification for war have not been found.
Both focused instead on the importance of success in Iraq — as well as in the Middle East, which they said is crucial to advancing the war on terror generally.
"It's a political year, everything I'm going to say, they're going to say is political," Bush said. "We're standing firm on our word because it's right, and it's in the long-term interests of our countries."