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Bush warns Saddam: Don’t test our will

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WASHINGTON — With the leader of America's closest ally by his side, President Bush stepped up his threats against Iraq on Friday, warning President Saddam Hussein not to "test our will."

Standing next to British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who joined Bush in launching airstrikes against Saddam's Iraq a week ago, the president cautioned that "we're going to watch him carefully."

Although Bush has said that U.N. economic sanctions have failed to work in Baghdad, he added Friday that a review or even a change of the economic restrictions by the United States and Great Britain "should not in any way, shape or form embolden Saddam Hussein."

"He has got to understand that we're going to watch him carefully, and if we catch him developing weapons of mass destruction, we will take the appropriate action," Bush said during a news conference with Blair at Camp David.

"And if we catch him threatening his neighbors, we will take the appropriate action. A change in a sanction regime that is not working should not be any kind of signal whatsoever to him that he should cross any line and test our will, because we're absolutely determined to make that part of the world a more peaceful place by keeping this guy in check."

Bush spoke amid his first presidential meeting with a European leader, one with whom his predecessor had a particularly close friendship and a political meeting of minds.

While Blair, leader of Britain's liberal Labor Party, and Bush hail from different sides of the ideological divide, they quickly closed ranks against Saddam and joined together on a blustery afternoon at the presidential retreat in Maryland to display their eagerness to work together.

Blair emphasized that the leaders had an "absolute determination to make sure that the threat of Saddam Hussein is contained and that he is not able to develop these weapons of mass destruction that he wishes to."

"We know perfectly well, given the chance, he will develop these weapons of mass destruction — indeed, is trying to do so, and will get as much technology as he can to do so."

After lunching with the two leaders, Secretary of State Colin Powell flew to the Middle East to try to begin rebuilding the coalition that worked together to push Iraq out of Kuwait in the Persian Gulf War.

Bush also announced that China responded Friday morning to his concern, voiced publicly Thursday, that it had helped Iraq rebuild its air-defense system. Paraphrasing, the president said Beijing told the administration that "if this is the case, we'll remedy the situation."

On another touchy subject, Blair opened himself to discussion about Bush's controversial plan to build a missile defense system, which even America's allies in Europe are nervous about.

"I think if you look at the weapons of mass destruction that people are trying to develop, and nuclear proliferation, that it's important that we look at every single way we possibly can of dealing with this threat," Blair said.

Asked whether he would forge ahead with such a system even if his European allies oppose it, Bush said, "I don't think I'm going to fail to persuade people. It's commonsensical to say to our friends, let's come together, work together to develop a defense against the true threats of the 21st century."

By meeting with Blair so soon after taking office, Bush hoped to deepen personal ties and reinforce the "special relationship" that binds Great Britain to the United States, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice said.

Since forging a working partnership through the 20th century's two world wars, British and U.S. governments have worked together more closely than either does with any other, including sharing the most sensitive intelligence. It is an alliance that transcends changes in leaders and parties in either capital, as the two nations share a worldview shaped by a common culture, language and history.

The two leaders had talked twice by phone before Friday's meeting. Now, Rice said, they hoped to "do face-to-face what you cannot on the telephone, which is really to get to know somebody, to spend some time in both discussions about issues, but also in an informal setting with family."

Blair and his wife, Cherie, arrived at the presidential retreat shortly before 1 p.m., as the Marine helicopter carrying them kicked up freshly fallen snow.

The president and first lady Laura Bush rode to the helicopter in a golf cart, which was covered with plastic windscreens. After greetings, President Bush took the wheel and shuttled his guests to a lodge.

By the time the two leaders finished lunch, they had become casual, at least in appearance. Both removed their overcoats and ties as they walked around the wooded retreat. Bush wore a brown leather flight jacket, Blair a navy blue sweater.

Bush, slightly more than a month into his presidency, initially shepherded his guest to the wrong door of Holly Lodge, the building that once housed talks between their legendary predecessors — Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill

Blair had a close relationship with former President Bill Clinton and patterned his own rise to power after him. Both were relatively young leaders who moved their parties toward the center by embracing a style of politics they called "The Third Way." Both are married to high-powered lawyers, and over the years the two couples appeared to form a special friendship.

While the new president does not share a history with Blair, Bush also rose to prominence by co-opting issues, such as education, that his party had shunned. Bush arguably is pushing his right-wing Republican Party to the center much as Blair and Clinton nudged their more liberal parties toward the middle.

Bush and Blair downplayed their philosophical differences on such issues as tax cuts (Bush is for them, Blair is not) and the death penalty (which Bush supports and Blair does not).

"He can handle his politics in Britain; I'll handle mine in America," Bush said.

Asked if they shared any common interests, Bush quipped: "Well, we both use Colgate toothpaste."

To which Blair added: "They're going to — they're going to wonder how you know that, George!"

Bush, who has made a point of developing new, personal relationships in Washington, and Blair and their wives were to have a private dinner Friday night at the bucolic presidential retreat.

Earlier Friday, Bush announced he would propose in his budget next week that Congress increase spending for the National Institutes of Health by $2.8 billion, or 13.8 percent. If approved, the increase would be the largest on record for the national medical and research centers.

"We recognize the federal government plays a very important role in researching cures for disease and therefore our budget increases the NIH budget for 2002 by $2.8 billion," Bush said during a meeting of his top budget advisers.