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 be 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.
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."
The weapons of mass destruction that were the justification for war - but which have not yet been found - received scant mention. Blair said, "We know that as the regime collapses, we will be led to them."
Bush traveled to Northern Ireland at Blair's behest to embrace the prime minister's peace blueprint, due out later this week. It was a political payback; Blair backed the president's Iraqi policies despite fierce opposition at home.
Blair has been pushing Bush to give the United Nations significant authority in postwar Iraq, partly to ease criticism from allies who fear the two leaders will rule Iraq alone.General's statement could complicate reconstruction
WASHINGTON - The retired Army general who will oversee the rebuilding of Iraq signed a statement that accused Palestinians of filling their children with hate and that praised Israel - comments that could complicate his new job in the tinderbox Persian Gulf.
Arab and Muslim leaders say retired Lt. Gen. Jay Garner's involvement with the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs - including the document he signed and a trip he took to Israel - raises questions about whether he is the right person to oversee Iraq's reconstruction.
"I honestly think when Iraqis find out (about the statement) they are going to be genuinely appalled," said Hussein Ibish, a spokesman for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.[Last modified April 9, 2003, 02:16:40]