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Last Updated:  Tuesday, 8 April, 2003, 18:12 GMT 19:12 UK
Iraqis 'turning towards' coalition
Top of the agenda was the administration of post-war Iraq
Coalition forces are winning the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people as Saddam Hussein's grip on power is weakened, Tony Blair and George Bush have claimed.

The two leaders were speaking at a news conference in Northern Ireland after talks on Iraq, the Middle East and the Northern Ireland peace process.

Mr Blair paid tribute to coalition forces in Iraq and went on: "In all parts of the country our power is strengthening, the regime is weakening and Iraqi people are turning towards us.

"Anyone who has seen the joy on the faces of people in Basra...knows that this was indeed a war of liberation not of conquest."

And the US president, asked if Saddam Hussein had been killed in a coalition strike, said: "I don't know if he survived. The only thing I know is he is losing power."

'False choice'

The key focus of the talks has been the administration of post-war Iraq and the role of the United Nations.

But Mr Bush also stressed his commitment to the Middle East peace process.

"Being here in Northern Ireland makes me even more firm in my belief that peace is possible," he said.

And he pledged to work as hard for the Middle East as Mr Blair had in Northern Ireland.

Mr Blair said the UN would have a "vital role" in the effort to repair Iraq's infrastructure - but said ultimately the country must be run by the Iraqi people.

UK Prime Minister Tony Blair and US President George W Bush

That view was echoed by Mr Bush, who said the UN would play a role in all aspects of post-war Iraq, from humanitarian aid to a future interim authority.

Mr Blair said it was a "false choice" to debate whether Iraq should be run by coalition forces or the UN.

"The key is that Iraq in the end should be governed by the Iraqi people," he said.

It later emerged that UN secretary general Kofi Annan was hoping to fly to London for talks with the prime minister this week.

French President Jacques Chirac also argued that the UN alone should take charge of the post-war reconstruction.

Mr Bush said Iraq would "move as quickly as possible" to an interim authority made up of Iraqis from inside and outside the country.

He said the interim authority would rule until a new government could be elected by the Iraqi people.

Mr Blair said the coalition remained convinced that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and said coalition forces would find them.
Coalition forces maintain security while a sub-Pentagon department controls infrastructure and aid
Formation of a broad-based, multi-ethnic interim Iraqi administration
Eventual move to an Iraqi government

The prime minister and the US president held their talks at Hillsborough Castle near Belfast.

Flying to the summit with Mr Bush on Air Force One on Monday, US Secretary of State Colin Powell said: "There is no question the UN will play an important role."

But he added: "The coalition, having spent the treasure, having taken the political risk and having paid the cost in lives, must have a leading role as we transition from a phase of hostilities to post-hostilities to reconstruction, to putting in place a representative government that belongs to the Iraqi people."

Joint statement

Washington would send a team to the Gulf this week to begin the process of putting together an interim authority, Mr Powell said.

At a time when some are accusing the president and the prime minister of being warmongers, it is obviously helpful for both leaders to stress their support for Northern Ireland's peace process

Mr Blair and Mr Bush also had lunch with Irish Taoiseach Bertie Ahern.

All three then met the leaders of the main pro-Good Friday Agreement parties in Northern Ireland, Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble, Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams and SDLP leader Mark Durkan.

Mr Bush, now flying back to the US, Mr Blair and Mr Ahern issued a joint statement calling on Northern Ireland to consign paramilitarism to the past and for its politicians to accept proposals for moving the Good Friday Agreement forward,

Northern Ireland's power-sharing government was suspended last October amid allegations of IRA intelligence-gathering at Stormont.

On Thursday Mr Blair and Mr Ahern will return to Belfast to set out a joint declaration - on the fifth anniversary of the Good Friday peace agreement - aimed at restoring devolution.

The BBC's Andrew Marr
"The two leaders have been struggling with the implications of this war"

Historic moment for NI says Bush
08 Apr 03  |  Northern Ireland
NI must 'abandon paramilitarism'
08 Apr 03  |  Northern Ireland

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