| A wounded Italian soldier, Marilena Jacobini, is greeted by officials after arriving at Ciampino airport in Rome. (AFP)
Washington, Nov. 14: President George W. Bush adopted a conciliatory tone yesterday as he prepared to leave for a state visit to Britain, insisting that he had no intention of rushing into war against North Korea or Iran.
In an interview with The Telegraph, Bush said war was “the last choice an American President should take” and declared that military action was not the only way to curb the spread of weapons of mass destruction.
His comments appeared directed at the thousands of anti-war demonstrators expected when he arrives in Britain next week. The President said he did not expect everyone to agree with him, and understood the dislike of war.
He heaped praise on Tony Blair and assured families of British casualties in Iraq that they did not “die in vain” and that he was praying for them.
Bush was noticeably conciliatory towards Iran and North Korea, which he has grouped with Iraq as part of an “axis of evil”. He said a multilateral approach appeared to be working with North Korea and praised a recent European initiative on Iran.
He also had emollient words for Europe, playing down concern in Washington that the Prime Minister’s support for the European Defence Initiative could undermine Nato. “I trust Tony Blair to make the right decision there,” he said.
But he stressed that America would not back down in pursuing its war on terrorism, insisting that he would do all he deemed necessary to ensure an atrocity such as September 11 never happened again.
“I can understand people not liking war, if that’s what they’re there to protest,” he said. “I don’t like war. War is the last choice a President should make, not the first.
“And, yet, we are at war. That’s what September the 11th taught us. It’s a different kind of war. And I intend to, so long as I’m the President, wage that war vigorously to protect the American people.”
He heaped praise on Tony Blair. Asked what was Blair’s “pay off” for Downing Street’s unwavering support over Iraq, he said: “Freedom and peace. Tony Blair is making decisions for the right reasons, he is the least political person I’ve dealt with.
“Never once has he said to me, ever: ‘Gosh, I’m feeling terrible pressure’. I have never heard him complain about the polls, or wring his hands. The relationship is a very good relationship because I admire him, and I admire somebody who stands tough.”
Bush was speaking to Martin Newland, the editor of The Daily Telegraph, and the editors of the Financial Times and the Press Association, shortly after authorising a major rethink of American policy for post-Saddam Iraq.
Yesterday it emerged that the White House was pushing for Iraqi self-rule by the middle of next year, sooner than originally envisaged, allowing many American troops to leave before next November’s presidential election.
Bush conceded that the situation was “tough”. But he said it was inconceivable that he would pull American forces out of Iraq until the “job was done”.
He also reaffirmed his support for the vision of the neo-conservative group in his administration that Iraq could prove a model for a new democratic West Asia. “This is a transforming mission. It is a milestone in the history of liberty.”
He played down, however, the fears of many in Europe that the war on Iraq was a template for future pre-emptive conflicts against states suspected of building weapons of mass destruction.
Asked about the jingle doing the rounds in Washington, “No war in 2004”, a reference to next year’s presidential election, he said: “We’re at war with terror.” But the President indicated that military conflict with Iran and North Korea was unlikely.
“Not every situation needs to be resolved through military action. And I would cite you North Korea and Iran... The case in Iraq was unique.”
He went on to suggest that Tehran could be persuaded to back down by an international forum and pointed to his approach to China, Japan and Russia for support in facing down the Stalinist regime in North Korea over its nuclear programme.