LONDON (Reuters) - President George W. Bush arrived in Britain on Sunday for what could be his last official visit as president, urging his close ally not to withdraw forces from Iraq unless conditions on the ground allowed.
In an interview with a British newspaper ahead of his trip, Bush said while the United States and Britain obviously wanted to bring their troops home from Iraq soon, it should be done “based upon success” and not arbitrary timetables.
Underlining the divisiveness of the Iraq issue for Britons, thousands of protesters demonstrated outside parliament in central London, denouncing Bush and the five-year-old war. Several demonstrators were injured in scuffles with police and the authorities said they had arrested 25 people.
Bush, on the final stop of a European farewell tour, said al Qaeda militants had been defeated in Iraq.
“They’ve been — we’ve routed them in Iraq,” he said in an interview with Sky News. “That’s not to say that they’re not still dangerous or want to come back, but they’ve been routed.”
Bush told the Observer newspaper he appreciated Britain’s support in Iraq and hoped its troops would remain a while.
“Our answer is: there should be no definitive timetable,” said Bush, adding he was “appreciative” that Brown was in frequent touch about “what he and his military are thinking.”
The newspaper described Bush as issuing a warning to Brown, but the White House dismissed that tone, saying there was no disagreement between the United States and Britain on Iraq.
Spokespeople said increasing international pressure on Iran over its nuclear programme was likely to figure more prominently than Iraq in their talks.
Both agreed any Iraq troop reductions would be based on “progress on the ground, on the advice of our military and not according to any arbitrary schedule,” Bush national security adviser Stephen Hadley told reporters aboard Air Force One.
Only about 4,200 British troops remain in Iraq, most of them stationed at a base in the south. Britain has indicated it could pull them all out by the end of 2008, but with the situation still unstable in Iraq, that appears difficult.
Britain’s sustained presence in Iraq is a bugbear to anti-war protesters, however, and around two thousand of them gathered outside parliament to shout down the U.S. president as he attended a dinner with Brown a few hundred yards away.
After arriving in Britain, Bush and his wife Laura had tea with Queen Elizabeth and toured Windsor Castle, one of her residences, ahead of dinner with Brown and his wife at the prime minister’s official residence, No. 10 Downing Street.
Police in riot gear created a buffer to allow Bush’s motorcade to reach Downing Street for dinner. Along the route groups of protesters bore signs reading “Killer Bush”, “World’s #1 terrorist”, and “Disarm this warhead” with a picture of Bush.
Bush and Brown will have official talks on Monday before Bush leaves for Northern Ireland, and then Washington.
Bush has a more formal relationship with Brown than his predecessor, Tony Blair, Washington’s staunchest supporter over Iraq. Brown is battling against poor opinion poll ratings and Iraq is a divisive issue in Britain.
When Brown visited Washington in April he caused a stir by meeting the 2008 presidential candidates before Bush, a sign of how leaders are increasingly looking towards a new president.
The White House was keen to play up the mutual respect of the two men who were set to discuss issues including Iran, climate change, energy policy, Iraq and Afghanistan.
With much of Europe still smarting over the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, Bush has spent a lot of his trip trying to forge a united front to press Iran to suspend its enrichment of uranium which could be used to build nuclear bombs.
Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel all offered support for efforts to prevent Iran obtaining nuclear weapons.
Merkel went a step further, backing more sanctions on Tehran if it refuses the latest request from world powers that it stop enrichment.
Additional reporting by Jeremy Pelofsky in London; editing by Dominic Evans