WASHINGTON – President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair presented a united front Thursday, painting the sectarian violence in Iraq as a battle between freedom and terror in which Iraqis have fallen victim to Al Qaeda's and Iran's efforts to cause chaos and control the region.
The leaders agreed that the vision of the Iraq Study Group for a peaceful Middle East is correct, but the bloodshed is the result of extremists who want to impose their rule on "this vital part of the world."
"It is true that Sunni and Shia extremists are targeting each other's innocent civilians and engaging in brutal reprisals. It's also true that forces beyond Iraq's borders contribute to this violence," Bush said during a White House press conference with the prime minister.
"The prime minister put it this way: He said, 'The violence is not an accident or a result of faulty planning. It is a deliberate strategy. It is the direct result of outside extremists teaming up with internal extremists — Al Qaeda with the Sunni insurgents and Iran with the Shia militia — to foment hatred and to throttle at birth the possibility of a nonsectarian democracy.' You are right, and I appreciate your comments," Bush said.
Blair said all the regional players should be interested in helping to ensure that Iraq is able to proceed democratically and in a non-sectarian way. He added that Iraqis need the opportunity to make the right decision.
Iraq's "people can either be presented with a choice between a secular or a religious dictatorship, which is not a choice that any free people would choose, or alternatively, they can enjoy the same possibilities of democracy that we hold dear in our countries," he said.
The prime minister is headed to the Middle East to speak with Israelis and Palestinians as part of a greater plan to resolve broader issues that the Iraq Study Group claims are holding up a solution in Iraq.
"This is something that I know you feel deeply and passionately about," Blair said, noting Bush's role as the first U.S. president to propose a two-state solution for Israel and the Palestinians.
"I believe that by moving this forward, we send a very strong signal not just to the region but to the whole of the world that we are evenhanded in the application of our values," Blair said.
Blair agreed with the ISG's conclusion that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been used to justify extremism in the region.
"The old Middle East had, within it, the origins of all the problems we see. I mean, let's be clear. This terrorist problem that we've faced in the last few years, it didn't originate, I'm afraid, a few years ago," Blair said. "It's come out of a series of states, of oppression, of warped ideology based on a perverted view of the faith of Islam."
The November midterm election results and the report by the Iraq Study Group have put new pressure on Bush to find an exit strategy from Iraq. The group's report out Wednesday said the situation in Iraq is "grave and deteriorating" and "time is running out" to find a solution to stop the bloodshed and instability in Iraq.
Major combat operations ended three and a half years ago, but nearly 2,900 U.S. forces have died since then. The ISG recommended having most U.S. combat forces not involved in force protection moved out of the country by March 2008 whether or not the Iraqi government has met all its own objectives.
Administration sources say the 2008 date is a goal, not a deadline. But Blair is likely to have left office by that time. Bush's administration ends at the close of 2008. Whether they can complete the mission by then is doubtful to many who say their successors will be left trying to come up with a strategy for peace in the Middle East.
Critics say the report Bush got from the Iraq Study Group on Wednesday is effectively a withdrawal strategy that is good for the United States but bad for Iraq. But it has been well-received by the White House.
It's just one of a couple of reports Bush will receive on Iraq, with others coming from the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the State Department and the National Security Council. Bush is expected to give either an address to the nation or to a joint meeting of Congress after he has received the reports, but before the Christmas holiday.
While the president may accept or reject some or all of the 79 recommendations from the ISG, the White House denies claims that the report is a repudiation of the administration's policy in Iraq. Bush said he didn't think "Jim Baker and Lee Hamilton expect us to accept every recommendation."
The president already has rejected some of the panel's ideas, such as having direct talks with Iran and Syria. The administration continues to insist that Iran verifiably suspend uranium enrichment before the United States would start direct talks, although Snow left the door open for discussions through an outside group.
Bush said aiding Iraq must be the goal of the region's players or else there's no point in attempting to include the usual barriers to peace.
"If people come to the table to discuss Iraq, they need to come understanding their responsibilities — to not fund terrorists, to help this young democracy survive, to help with the economics of the country. If people are not committed — if Syria and Iran is not committed to that concept, then they shouldn't bother to show up," Bush said.
FOX News' Wendell Goler and The Associated Press contributed to this report.