HILLSBOROUGH, Northern Ireland –Saddam Hussein is losing his grip on power “finger by finger,” President Bush said Tuesday as he sought with ally Tony Blair to ease concerns that their conquering alliance will dominate postwar life in oil-rich Iraq.
“I hear a lot of talk here about how we’re going to impose this leader or that leader. Forget it,” Bush said at a news conference with the British prime minister outside Belfast. “Iraqis are plenty capable of running Iraq and that is precisely what is going to happen.”
Blair said the U.S.-British role was merely to help in the transition from years of dictatorship to self-rule.
“This new Iraq that will emerge is not to be run either by us or, indeed, by the U.N. That is a false choice,” Blair said. “It will run by the Iraqi people.”
Addressing reporters in the gilded throne room of an 18th century castle, Bush and Blair offered personal assessments of the war – all positive.
The two leaders also said they would cede power in the country as soon as possible, involve Iraqi citizens from the outset in the creation of a transitional government and give a “vital role” to the United Nations in reconstruction.
But the leaders – meeting for the third time in three weeks – offered few details about the exact U.N. role or the makeup of the interim governing authority. Bush said his word should be good enough.
“Evidently, there’s some skepticism here in Europe about whether or not I mean what I say. Saddam Hussein clearly now knows I mean what I say,” Bush said.
Questions about the U.N.’s role persisted. “I don’t think we have a clearer sense of what that role might be,” said Fred Eckhard, spokesman for Secretary-General Kofi Annan. He said, “It would be in everyone’s best interest if the international community were brought to play in the establishment” of a postwar Iraqi government or authority.
As Bush spoke, U.S. military intelligence officials were using several means, including DNA testing, to determine whether Saddam or his sons survived a Monday night attack on a Baghdad restaurant. Four bunker-busting bombs left a smoking crater 60 feet deep.
Bush said the fate of the Iraqi president’s regime is certain, regardless of the success of the strikes.
“Saddam Hussein will be gone,” the president said. “It might have been yesterday. I don’t know. But he’ll be gone.”
The comment reflected a desire by Bush and Blair, since the first day of the war, to convince Iraqis that coalition forces will not stop short of ousting Saddam as they did in the 1991 Persian Gulf War led by Bush’s father.
“He has ruled by fear, but as the knowledge sinks in that we will get the job done, the people realize there’s not going to be a repeat of 1991,” Blair said.
Bush said coalition troops have steadily loosened the grip “Saddam had around the throats” of Iraqis: “I can’t tell you if all ten fingers are off the throat, but finger by finger, it’s coming off.”