WASHINGTON - President Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain issued a spirited defense yesterday of their decision to invade Iraq, insisting that their prewar intelligence on Saddam Hussein's illicit weapons was credible and accurate.
Amid rising doubts about whether any banned weapons will be found, the two sought to shift the focus, urging Americans and Britons to appreciate that a dangerous dictator has been toppled.
Bush, who was animated as he spoke to reporters alongside Blair at the White House, insisted that U.S. and British intelligence "made a clear and compelling case that Saddam Hussein was a threat to security and peace."
The president said he "strongly" believes that Hussein tried to "reconstitute his nuclear weapons program," even though the White House has acknowledged that it lacked reliable intelligence to support the assertion Bush made in this year's State of the Union address that Iraq sought to buy uranium in Africa.
"As long as I hold this office," Bush said yesterday, "I will never risk the lives of American citizens by assuming the good will of dangerous enemies."
An hour before appearing with the president, Blair, on a busy seven-hour visit to Washington, gave a rare speech by a foreign leader to a joint session of Congress. Strikingly, Blair raised the possibility that he and Bush might be proved mistaken in their belief that terrorists have acquired, or will acquire, dangerous weapons - a central justification for invading Iraq.
"Can we be sure that terrorism and weapons of mass destruction will join together?" the prime minister said. "Let us say one thing: If we are wrong, we will have destroyed a threat that, at its least, is responsible for inhuman carnage and suffering. That is something I am confident history will forgive."
"But if our critics are wrong," Blair continued, "if we are right, as I believe with every fiber of instinct and conviction I have that we are, and we do not act, then we will have hesitated in the face of this menace when we should have given leadership."
Later, appearing with Bush, Blair said he had not meant to suggest that banned weapons would never be found in Iraq.
After days of questions on both sides of the Atlantic about whether they had misrepresented prewar intelligence to bolster their case that Hussein must be removed, Bush and Blair seemed determined to reclaim the offensive.
Both men appeared to have two goals: to reiterate their confidence that Hussein possessed prohibited weapons, even though none have been found, and to restate other reasons why his ouster should be celebrated, regardless of the weapons search.
"We rid the Middle East of an aggressive, destabilizing regime," Bush said. "We liberated nearly 25 million people from decades of oppression. And we are now helping the Iraqi people to build a free nation."
'Last line of defense'
On Capitol Hill, Blair argued that spreading freedom to Iraq, as well as to Afghanistan and other nations under dangerous regimes, "is our last line of defense and our first line of attack" in the war on terrorism.
"Ours are not Western values," Blair said. "They are the universal values of the human spirit, and anywhere, anywhere, any time ordinary people are given the chance to choose, the choice is the same: freedom, not tyranny. Democracy, not dictatorship. The rule of law, not the rule of the secret police."
The two leaders also pleaded with their publics for patience with the military effort in Iraq, as conditions there remain perilous and unpredictable.
The new commander of U.S.-led forces in Iraq on Wednesday acknowledged that the postwar climate in Iraq has become a "classical guerrilla-type" campaign in which American and British forces face violent and organized resistance from Iraqi fighters. In polls, the percentage of Americans and Britons who say they believe the war was justified has begun to decline.
Blair was Bush's closest partner in a war that was opposed by most other U.S. allies. Now, both face rising skepticism at home about whether weapons will be found and accusations that they might have exaggerated prewar intelligence information.
In particular, a British intelligence report that Hussein had sought uranium in Niger for his nuclear weapons program - an assertion that found its way into Bush's State of the Union speech in January - has subjected both leaders to a storm of criticism.
The president acknowledged last week that he should not have accused Hussein of seeking uranium in Africa, given that the CIA found the British report unreliable. That admission created some discomfort between the two countries and the two leaders, and Blair stood firmly by his nation's intelligence on Iraq and Niger yesterday.
During their private meeting, the president and the prime minister agreed to an arrangement in which the two countries will be able to share sensitive intelligence information, White House officials said.
Blair is the first British prime minister to address a joint session of Congress since Margaret Thatcher in 1985. His visit, planned weeks ago when he and Bush were enjoying high postwar popularity, had been intended as a victory tour for him to share the spotlight with the president and celebrate success in Iraq. Instead, the two found themselves seeking to justify a military conflict that seems, at least for now, a political burden for both.
The prime minister delivered a wide-ranging foreign policy address on Capitol Hill - where he received raucous bipartisan applause - in which he said the world should remain committed as it fights terrorism, seeks peace in the Middle East and works to eradicate poverty and disease in Africa.
Analysts have said that Blair, who will likely face British voters in 2005, might begin distancing himself from Bush, who is unpopular in Britain, and try to re-establish ties with key European allies who opposed war in Iraq. And indeed, speaking as much to his own prime-time television audience at home as to lawmakers on Capitol Hill, Blair implored the Bush administration, which critics have labeled unilateralist, to work with European nations as it pursues its foreign policy.
"They are our allies, and they are yours," Blair said. "So don't give up on Europe - work with it."
The prime minister added: "Let us start preferring a coalition and acting alone if we have to, not the other way round."
Blair stressed that in postwar Afghanistan, in Iraq and elsewhere, the United States and Britain have sought to spread values, such as democracy and human rights, that are "the universal values of the human spirit."
The prime minister seemed to be responding to critics at home who have charged that he has blindly followed Bush and U.S. policy, sometimes at the expense of British interests. A majority of Britons now say in polls that the prime minister is "untrustworthy."
Though Bush and Blair projected an air of friendship and cooperation, there are new strains in their alliance. For one thing, two British terror suspects have been detained by U.S. forces at Guantanamo Bay, and Blair is under pressure to persuade Bush to let them return to Britain to be tried. In the eyes of many British lawmakers, the men could lose important legal rights if tried in a military tribunal, which U.S. officials have said they may use for some terrorist suspects.
The leaders said they planned to discuss the situation over dinner after their news conference, and Blair said 10 Downing Street would release a statement today about the situation.
Bush said he knows "for certain" that the two suspects "are bad people." But he vowed to work closely with Blair "to deal with the issue."
The prime minister left Washington last night for Asia, where he will visit Japan, South Korea, China and Hong Kong in the next six days. A tense standoff with North Korea over that nation's pursuit of nuclear weapons will likely dominate Blair's discussions.
The president left last night for a four-day stay at his ranch in Texas. During his trip, he will make fund-raising stops in Dallas and Houston to raise money for his re-election bid. On Monday, he will meet at his ranch with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.