Brown and Bush show unity on Iraq

"There's no doubt in my mind he understands the stakes of the struggle," Bush said of Brown.

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President Bush and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown forged a unified stand on Iraq Monday, aiming to head off talk of a splintering partnership in the face of an unpopular war. "There's no doubt in my mind he understands the stakes of the struggle," Bush said of Brown after two days of talks at the tranquil presidential retreat in Maryland's Catoctin Mountains. The visit was closely watched for any sign of daylight between the president and prime minister after four years of unwavering support by Tony Blair, Brown's predecessor. Blair was saddled with the nickname "poodle" by critics at home he felt he was too compliant with Bush's policies, particularly in Iraq. Brown told Bush that he shares the US view of gradually turning over security of Iraq to its own people, based on signs of clear progress and advice from military leaders. "We have duties to discharge and responsibilities to keep in support of the democratically elected government," Brown said of Britain's commitment to Iraq. Still, as the US has built up troops, Britain has been pulling them out. Britain has around 5,500 troops based mainly on the outskirts of Basra. That's a significant drawdown since the war began, and Brown hinted more reductions were coming. There were also subtle but notable differences between the leaders - mainly in how they described the terrorist threat - that could end up having broader significance. Brown maintained that "Afghanistan is the front line against terrorism," in contrast to Bush's common refrain the Iraq is the central front in the war on terror. The president said the fight against terrorism is a battle of good against evil; he referred to it as struggle over ideology many times. Brown steered away from that. "Terrorism is not a cause; it is a crime," he said. "It is a crime against humanity." Bush said he listened carefully to Brown's thinking and was reassured. "He gets it," Bush said. "What's interesting about this struggle ... is that he understand it's an ideological struggle, and he does," Bush said. The United Kingdom's commitment to the war is essential to the Bush administration. Bush didn't directly answer whether he planned to pass on the war to the next president, who will take office in January 2009. But he suggested that was likely. "This is going to take a long time in Iraq, just like the ideological struggle is going to take a long time," Bush said. In turn, Brown would not answer directly when asked to identify mistakes in how the war has been managed. Brown said there have been problems but also successes. He noted his nation's ability to hand control back to Iraqis in three of four provinces the British oversee. The leaders spoke in broad strokes about areas of agreement: halting violence in Darfur, pushing through an international trade deal, combatting HIV/AIDS and malaria. If Bush had any dissatisfaction about what he heard from Brown on Iraq, he didn't reveal it. Notably, though, Brown covered his bases. After leaving Bush, he met with US congressional leaders on Capitol Hill, where support for Bush on the war is fading. In deference to the US-British relationship, Bush gave Brown the treatment reserved for special leaders: a coveted overnight stay at the presidential retreat here, three meals of all-American fare and introductory talks spanning a range of weighty matters. Asked for differences between Blair and Brown, Bush said, "He's a Scotsman," and not nearly as dour or humorless as the press had described. Aides said the leaders' talks Sunday and Monday were full, frank and businesslike. "You know, he probably wasn't sure what to expect from me," the president said. "I kinda had a sense of the kind of person I was going to be dealing with. I would describe Gordon Brown as a principled man who really wants to get something done." Their news conference had light moments, and a couple of awkward ones. Twice, Bush seemed to grade Brown, like a mentor looking over the new guy. He praised Brown for his steady response to a terror threat at home in his second day on the job. "You've proved your worthiness as a leader. And I thank you for that," Bush said. At the end of the news conference, Bush told Brown, "Good job," as he has done to others before. Brown bypassed first impressions of Bush in favor of touting common national values. "We are at one in fighting the battle against terrorism," Brown said. "And that struggle is one that we will fight with determination and with resilience." Bush offered some trademark needling. When Brown said six of his Cabinet members are under 40, Bush replied: "You must be feeling damn old, then." The president extended the same courtesy to the British press, which Brown noted. "You better cover up your bald head. It's getting hot out here," Bush told a BBC reporter with whom he has scrapped at news conferences before. By the time the reporter said, "I never knew you cared, sir" Bush and Brown had walked away, seemingly well outside of earshot. But Bush heard him and said, "I don't." In Washington later, Brown visited Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. After being introduced to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California and her Republican counterpart, Rep. John Boehner of Ohio, he praised the two countries' relationship. "I believe Winston Churchill came here, to the House, and said many years ago that our joint inheritance is a belief in liberty, a belief in opportunity for all and a belief in the dignity of every individual," he said.