At White House, Bush and Blair Focus on Iraq

By William Branigin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 17, 2007; 4:48 PM

President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair said today they have no regrets about their decision to go to war in Iraq despite the damage the four-year-old conflict has done to their popularity, and they offered assurances that the United States and Britain would remain steadfast allies in confronting terrorism and other global issues after Blair leaves office next month.

Blair, making his last visit to Washington as prime minister before his resignation takes effect June 27, cited "real and genuine signs of progress" in Iraq after joining Bush in the White House situation room to participate in a video conference with U.S. and British military commanders and ambassadors in Baghdad.

In a news conference in the White House Rose Garden following the hour-long video briefing, Bush said he did not know whether he was to blame for Blair's departure from office, and he chastised British reporters who questioned whether Blair is the right person to deal with at this point.

Saying that Blair is "going to sprint to the wire," Bush declared, "Yeah, no question about it, it's the right man to be talking to. And yeah, we can get a lot done." He said reporters were "trying to do a tap dance on his political grave," adding, "You don't understand how effective Blair is."

Bush also expressed confidence that his administration would work out an agreement with Democratic lawmakers on a bill to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan this year following his May 1 veto of $124 billion emergency spending legislation that contained a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. He continued to insist that any new bill not include "artificial timetables for withdrawal," but he said he understood the need for "benchmarks" in the legislation on Iraqi progress in meeting political and economic goals aimed at national reconciliation.

Senate Democrats said they were determined to bring the war in Iraq to a "responsible end" and predicted that Bush ultimately would be forced to heed growing antiwar sentiment in Congress and among the public.

Asked about the fate of embattled World Bank President Paul D. Wolfowitz, who is fighting for his job amid a controversy over a generous promotion and pay package he approved for his girlfriend, Bush said he admired his former deputy secretary of defense but stopped short of declaring that he should continue to lead the global lending institution.

"I regret that it's come to this," Bush said. "I admire Paul Wolfowitz. I admire his heart, and I particularly admired his focus on helping the poor."

On another issue roiling Washington these days, Bush avoided answering directly when asked whether he had ordered his former White House counsel, Alberto R. Gonzales, and his former chief of staff, Andrew H. Card Jr., to visit a seriously ill attorney general John D. Ashcroft in intensive care at a Washington hospital in March 2004 to obtain his approval for a warrantless eavesdropping program that the Justice Department had found to be illegal.

"I'm not going to talk about it," Bush said. "It's a very sensitive program." He went on to defend the program as "necessary to protect the American people" and said it was "constantly reviewed and briefed to the United States Congress."

In Senate testimony this week, former deputy attorney general James B. Comey said Gonzales, who replaced Ashcroft as attorney general in 2005, and Card arrived in Ashcroft's hospital room with a presidential order to sign after a call to the room from the White House, possibly from Bush himself. Comey testified that he regarded the visit as an attempt to take advantage of a very sick man and bypass the authority that Comey had assumed as acting attorney general during Ashcroft's hospitalization. He said he, Ashcroft and other top Justice Department officials were prepared to resign en masse if the program were implemented over the department's legal objections. Bush subsequently relented and accepted changes that Justice recommended, Comey said.

The testimony fueled demands by some lawmakers for the resignation of Gonzales, who is also embroiled in a controversy over the firing of nine U.S. attorneys last year as part of a White House effort to weed out federal prosecutors deemed insufficiently loyal to Bush.

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