WASHINGTON (AP) — President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair forcefully defended their decision to topple Saddam Hussein on Thursday, dismissing criticism that no Iraqi weapons of mass destruction have yet been found.
"As long as I hold this office I will never risk the lives of American citizens by assuming the good will of dangerous enemies," Bush said at a White House news conference with his wartime ally by his side.
Less than an hour earlier, in a speech in the Capitol before a cheering audience of lawmakers, Blair said failure to confront the threat would have been "something that history will not forgive."
Bush said, "We're being tested in Iraq. Our enemies are looking for signs of hesitation. They're looking for signs of weakness. They will find none."
"We are allies and we are friends," concurred Blair.
The two men fielded questions from reporters near the end of Blair's seven-hour trip to Washington.
He visited at a time when both leaders are being buffeted by controversy stemming from their pre-war claims that Saddam was seeking nuclear material.
Bush officials have struggled in recent days to explain the decision to include a line on the subject in the president's State of the Union address last winter. The reference cited British intelligence that some CIA officials believed to be inaccurate.
Asked directly whether he would take responsibility for the statement, Bush said, "I take responsibility for putting troops into action. I take responsibility for making the tough decision to put together a coalition to remove Saddam Hussein."
The president added that American and British intelligence "made a clear and compelling case that Saddam Hussein was a threat to security and peace."
"I strongly believe he was trying to reconstitute his nuclear weapons program," Bush said, adding that after the first Persian Gulf War in 1991, "it became clear that Saddam Hussein was much closer to developing nuclear weapons than anybody ever imagined."
Blair said his government stands by its own intelligence, which reported that Saddam's agents had sought uranium in Niger. He also said it was known for certain that Iraq purchased 270 tons of uranium from the African nation during the 1980s.
At their brief news conference, the two leaders also were asked about the fate of Moazzam Begg, 35, and Feroz Abbasi, 23 — Britons being held at the U.S. naval base in Cuba after being seized in Afghanistan.
Bush and Blair said they would be discussing the case in private talks later, and Blair promised a public statement today.
The two leaders stood shoulder to shoulder at the White House — literally and rhetorically — yet the prime minister used his speech to Congress to gently urge the administration not to bear grudges against traditional allies that opposed the decision to go to war.
"So don't give up on Europe," he said before an audience of lawmakers, Bush administration officials and the United States military brass. "Work with it."
Congressional Democrats have criticized the administration over the issue in recent days, but they joined Republicans in applauding Blair when he strode into the House of Representatives, and at several points during his speech.
"We promised Iraq democratic government. We will deliver it," Blair said.
The prime minister wryly thanked his audience for a "warm and generous welcome that's more than I deserve, and it's more than I'm used to, quite frankly."
That was a reference to domestic British politics. Before the war, Blair drew stronger opposition in the House of Commons to military action than Bush did in Congress. And like Bush, Blair has been hit hard by post-war controversy over questionable intelligence information.
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