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Washington - American President George Bush said on Monday that he would grudgingly accept an Islamic fundamentalist government in Iraq, if the Iraqi people voted to create one in free elections.
"I would be disappointed, but democracy is democracy," Bush said when asked about the possibility that Iraqis might some day prefer an Islamic government to secular rule.
"If that's what the people choose, that's what the people choose," the president added.
Bush admitted this in an interview aboard Air Force One as he travelled to a campaign stop in New Jersey.
Bush's rare reference to the prospect for Islamic rule appeared to clash with previous remarks from an administration that rejected popular calls for an Iranian-style Islamic state in Iraq soon after the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime in April 2003.
A senior administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the president has long believed that Islam is compatible with democracy.
Free elections are expected next January in Iraq, and Bush has touted the prospect for democratic governments there and in Afghanistan as evidence that his administration is making progress in the US war on terrorism.
The majority of Iraqis are adherents of the Shi'ite branch of Islam that rules neighbouring Iran, which Bush scorned as part of an "axis of evil" along with prewar Iraq and North Korea.
Iraq was ruled for decades by secular Baathists until the US-led invasion.
With US and Iraqi officials now struggling to end post-war chaos and violence, Bush has moderated his approach on Iraq's political future.
The president, whose administration once called for the killing or capture of radical Iraqi cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, has since said he would not oppose a political role for the religious leader who wants to establish a Shi'ite-dominated Islamic state.
US troops have repeatedly battled Sadr's militia. But recently, the cleric's forces have agreed to an arms handover amid efforts to persuade Sadr to join the political process.