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HILLSBOROUGH, Northern Ireland (AP) -- President Bush said Tuesday that Saddam Hussein is losing his grip on power "finger by finger" and he may even be dead after a massive bombing strike.
Looking beyond the war, Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair said the United Nations would play a vital role in Iraq's reconstruction.
At a joint news conference with Blair, Bush said it was unclear if Saddam were alive after a U.S. warplane dropped four-bunker busting bombs Monday afternoon on a western Baghdad restaurant where he was believed to be meeting with his sons. "I don't know whether he survived," the president said.
"The only thing I know is that he's losing power," Bush said at a joint news conference with the British prime minister after a meeting at Hillsborough Castle outside Belfast.
"The grip I used to describe that Saddam had around the throats of the Iraqi people are loosening. I can't tell you if all ten fingers are off their throats, but finger-by-finger it's coming off."
And then, as if talking directly to the Iraqi people, Bush added: "We will not stop until they are free. Saddam Hussein will be gone. It might have been yesterday."
Divisions in public opinion were present. Some 100 anti-war protesters blocked traffic in central Belfast, shouting slogans, banging drums and carrying signs sympathetic to the Iraqis such as "You dare to call them terrorists as you bomb their homes."
Police armed with plastic shields, guns and truncheons contained the demonstration, arresting about half a dozen protesters as hundreds of pedestrians watched at midday.
Holding their third meeting in three weeks, Blair and Bush offered personal assessments -- all positive -- of the war. They also sought to boost peace talks in Northern Ireland.
Blair said Saddam's regime is collapsing under the weight of allied attacks in Iraq.
"In all parts of the country our power is strengthening, the regime is weakening, the Iraqi people are turning towards us," Blair said. "The power of Saddam is ending."
In addition to showcasing military progress in Iraq, the two leaders looked ahead to the postwar period and sought to minimize splits on who should govern and rebuild the country.
A key component of the talks was U.N. resolutions that would define what role the international body would play in reconstruction and governing. Blair sought to downplay the divide, in which the British leader seems to want a more influential U.N. role than Bush favors.
Bush has said he supports a U.N. role and the creation of an interim governing authority for Iraq. But he has not provided key details, such as the exact nature of the U.N.'s role and the makeup of the authority.
"There will be a vital role for the U.N. in the reconstruction of Iraq," Blair said. "But the key is that Iraq in the end will be run by the Iraqi people."
Questioned for details on that "vital role," Bush provided few, other than talking of the need for food and medical aid.
"That means being a party to the progress being made in Iraq," he said.
Bush added a complex set of issues by heeding Blair's call to meet in Northern Ireland and by backing Blair's peace blueprint, due out later this week. Blair has won political IOUs from Bush by backing the president on Iraq in the face of fierce opposition at home.
"I support and my government strongly supports their efforts," Bush said. "This is a historic moment. I ask all the communities of Northern Ireland to seize this opportunity for peace."
Blair said progress being made toward peace in Northern Ireland would have a positive impact on the Middle East peace process.
"To those who can sometimes say that the process in the Middle East is hopeless," he said, "I say we can look at Northern Ireland and take some hope from that."
Both leaders looked ahead to issuing a "roadmap" to restart peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. That plan is to be released after the new prime minister for the Palestinian Authority is confirmed.
The bombs targeting Saddam blasted a smoking crater several stories deep and destroyed at least three buildings. U.S. officials were sifting through the rubble to try to determine Saddam's fate.
A U.S. official familiar with the latest military intelligence said coalition forces were trying to confirm whether Saddam was killed.
"There's lots of digging and DNA tests involved," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Talking of the Iraqi people, Bush said: "We will not stop until they are free. Saddam Hussein will be gone. It might have been yesterday."
Both leaders sought to rebuff comments that U.S.-led forces were planning to occupy Iraq.
"This was indeed a war of liberation and not conquest," Blair said. "Our enemy in this conflict has always been Saddam and his regime, not the Iraqi people."
The Iraq war undercut support for Bush among some citizens in Northern Ireland, particularly in the most hard-line Catholic areas.
In the Bogside district of Londonderry, Northern Ireland's second-largest city, a 50-foot-high wall that for more than three decades has read "You are now entering Free Derry" was painted solid black in a gesture of mourning for Iraqis killed in the war.
The area's veteran civil rights activist, Eamonn McCann, said most Derry Roman Catholics considered Bush a hypocrite for telling the Irish Republican Army that violence doesn't pay.
"Bush is saying to political leaders here: Give up the gun, don't use violence to pursue political ends, follow the rule of law. He is demanding that they do that even as he prosecutes the war in Iraq," McCann said. "I doubt if I've ever encountered anything as grotesquely hypocritical as the exercise in Hillsborough."
(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)