WASHINGTON – President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair (search) showed a united front on Iraq on Friday as the coalition continued to face violent resistance from some Iraqi factions.
The two world leaders held a joint news conference in the White House Rose Garden Friday, hoping to boost public support for the mission in Iraq amid rising casualty numbers there.
Saying "the stakes in Iraq are clear," Bush said, "Britain, America and our allies can either break our word to the people of Iraq, abandon them in their hour of need ... or we can help them defeat their enemies.
"The prime minister and I have made our choice: Iraq will be free … we will not waver in the face of fear and intimidation."
Bush and Blair are staring down a June 30 deadline for handing off political power to an Iraqi interim government (search).
The June 30 date will be kept, Bush said, since Iraqis don't want an occupation and "the coalition has no interest in occupation. On that date, the Coalition Provisional Authority will cease to exist. But coalition forces will remain in Iraq to help the new government succeed."
Bush signaled support for an interim government to take power in Iraq on that date, praising the plan under development by U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi (search).
Although Blair has been taking heat from lawmakers and the public in his own country for his strong alliance with Bush and the United States on issues such as Iraq, there was no sign the prime minister was going to waiver.
"Since Sept. 11, our two countries have been friends and allies standing side by side and we will continue to do so," Blair said.
Blair said there are several objectives remaining for the coalition in Iraq.
"Our plan to do this is clear and we shall see it through," he said. "We will do what it takes to win this struggle, we will not yield, we will not back down either on us or defenseless civilians."
"It was never going to be easy and it isn't now" in Iraq, Blair said.
The leaders are also trying to forge a strategy to get the United Nations (search) to issue a new resolution on Iraq, hoping that might persuade more countries to send troops into the country and ease the U.S. and British burden.
The British have reported nearly 60 soldiers killed in Iraq, the United States nearly 700, including 88 killed this month. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld (search) expressed surprise Thursday at the number of recent casualties.
It was the fifth time in less than a week that Bush has met with reporters -- a period marked by increased American casualties in Iraq as well as a rash of hostage-taking by militants loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr (search).
Bush expressed support for Brahimi's work, saying the U.N. diplomat has "identified a way forward to establishing an interim government that is broadly acceptable to the Iraqi people. Our coalition will continue to work with the United Nations to prepare for nationwide elections that will choose a new government in January of 2005."
The president expressed gratitude that Brahimi "will soon return to Iraq and continue his important work."
Bush said earlier this week at a news conference that he would like to get a new U.N. resolution "that will help other nations to decide to participate" in Iraq. U.N. Security Council members want to wait to hear from Brahimi before acting on a new resolution.
The United States has about 130,000 troops in Iraq, followed by Britain's 12,000. Bush and Blair last met face-to-face five months ago.
The Mideast Issue
Turning his attention to a second contentious foreign policy issue, Bush also called on Palestinian leaders to "rise to the challenge" of accepting permanent Israeli possession of certain portions of the West Bank seized in the 1967 Mideast war.
"It gives all sides a chance to reinvigorate" the peace process, said Bush, who signed off earlier this week on a fundamental shift in American policy in response to a request from Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
As for the Middle East, Bush said that his embrace of Sharon's proposal for Israel to withdraw from all of Gaza but retain parts of the West Bank, where thousands of Israeli settlers live, marks an opportunity for a final agreement leading to a Palestinian state.
Blair said the same, adding, "Let's not look this particular opportunity in the eye and then turn away." He added there was now an agreement "that a Palestinian state should be viable."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.