President George W. Bush said Monday that coalition forces in Iraq would support a possible decision by the new Iraqi leadership to declare martial law to deal with escalating violence and terror attacks.

“Iraqis know what we know, that the best way to defend yourself is to go on the offensive,” he said, speaking at a news conference with Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain.

The two leaders, the main proponents of the invasion of Iraq, acknowledged that they had yet to persuade many of their critics that the war was justified.

But Blair said the transfer of sovereignty to Iraqis on Monday demonstrated their commitment to fostering democracy in Iraq, not just ridding the country of a dictator and then occupying the country.

“From now on,” he said, “the coalition changes. We are there in support of the Iraqi government and the Iraqi people.” Iraq’s new prime minister, Iyad Allawi, and other Iraqi leaders have said they are considering stringent measures, including the imposition of martial law, to establish a modicum of order in Iraq and gain credibility with the Iraqi public, whose main complaint during the 14-month occupation has been a lack of security. Bush and Blair pledged continuing military support for the new Iraqi government, saying their soldiers would help protect public property and provide security for elections next year.

Under the terms of a UN Security Council resolution passed this month, the multinational force now in Iraq will remain under U.S. command but work in coordination with Iraq’s government. NATO heads of state meeting in Istanbul on Monday also offered to help train Iraqi security forces. Bush said the Iraqi leadership faced extraordinary security challenges that might require tough temporary measures. In particular, he cited Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian blamed for organizing a series of devastating bombings as well as the kidnapping and beheadings of foreigners in Iraq. An American marine, Corporal Wassef Ali Hassoun, disappeared June 21 near Falluja and is believed to be in the hands of Zarqawi allies, who have threatened to kill him. Zarqawi allies are also believed to be holding a Pakistani and three Turks.

“Prime Minister Allawi, as head of a sovereign government, may decide he has to take tough measures to deal with a brutal cold-blooded killer,” Bush said, in a reference to Zarqawi. “Our job is to help.” Bush spoke eight hours after the surprise handover of power to the interim Iraqi government in Baghdad, which came two days ahead of schedule out of security concerns.

The transfer of sovereignty was moved up from June 30 in response to the request of Allawi. A senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity in a briefing for reporters, said the idea had been discussed in Baghdad and Washington for about one week. Allawi had told the administration that Monday would be “the right day,” the official added, and the final decision to go ahead with an early handover was made late Sunday.

He said that Allawi had informed L. Paul Bremer 3rd, the occupation administrator in Iraq, and that Bremer had notified Bush and his aides, who arrived in Istanbul on Saturday night.

Bush said he was convinced that the Iraqis were ready and able to take charge of their own affairs. “Last Friday, we handed over the final ministry to the Iraqi government, so, in other words, we have been making a transfer of sovereignty all along,” Bush said. “The final decision was made by Prime Minister Allawi. He thought it would strengthen his hand. I thought it was a smart thing to do, primarily because the prime minister was ready for it.” He went on to praise Allawi and the interim Iraqi president, Ghazi al-Yawar, as strong leaders who had shown that they were ready for independence. “They’re gutsy, courageous and, as they say in Texas, they’re stand-up guys,” he said. “They’ll lead. They’ll lead their people to a better day.”

The New York Times