WASHINGTON – British Prime Minister Tony Blair said Friday that fledgling democracy in Iraq deserves support, even from critics who question whether sacrifices in the three-year-old war are worthwhile.
"The war, I know, split the world," Blair said. "The struggle of Iraqis for democracy should unite it."
The prime minister was a rare European ally of President Bush in going to war, and like Bush he has suffered political consequences. Large majorities in both countries now say they disapprove of the way each man has handled his job and the Iraq war.
Blair met with Bush over two days this week, following a visit to Baghdad to meet with Iraq's new political leaders. The United States and Britain hope formation of Iraq's first permanent democratic government will improve security and build confidence, speeding the time when their combined 140,000 troops can leave.
"We can argue forever about the merits of removing Saddam," but that is not the point, Blair said in the speech at Georgetown University.
"You may not agree with the original decision. You may believe mistakes have been made. You may even think, 'How can it be worth the sacrifice?"' Blair said. "But surely we must all accept this is a genuine attempt to run the race of liberty."
Blair said he was impressed with Iraq's multiethnic leaders. As long as they are willing to fight terrorism and violence, they should have the world's support, he said.
"These weren't stooges or placemen. They believe in their country. They believe in its capacity to be democratic. They are fighting against the odds, it is true, but they are fighting."
Blair argued, as Bush does, that a democratic bulwark in Iraq can help change the Middle East. He said little about Iran, which represents another brewing problem in the region that has also divided world opinion.
"I don't believe we will be secure unless Iran changes," Blair said. "I emphasize, I am not saying we should impose change."
Britain has again sided with the United States as it presses for tough international action to contain Iran's nuclear program, but both nations say the idea of another invasion or attack is far-fetched.
The United Nations Security Council is reviewing Iran's disputed nuclear activities, but the council's veto-holding members have been divided over whether to seek sanctions or other measures enforceable by military action.
At a White House news conference Thursday, Bush and Blair were defensive when they would have preferred to celebrate the recent political success in Baghdad.
Bush acknowledged the bloodshed has been difficult for the world to understand. Blair called the violence "ghastly."
But, Bush said at the White House, "Despite setbacks and missteps, I strongly believe we did and are doing the right thing."