WASHINGTON - President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair forcefully denied yesterday that Bush manipulated intelligence to build support for war with Iraq, as a controversial British government memo suggests.
Standing side by side in the White House, the two leaders disputed the prewar memo, which has raised questions about whether Bush exaggerated the threat from Iraq in his zeal to oust then-Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. Bush and Blair were put on the defensive about the so-called Downing Street memo at a news conference intended to highlight their plans for increased aid to Africa.
Bush's critics have seized on the memo, written by one of Blair's top aides in July 2002 and made public last month, as evidence that Bush misled the world on the need for war. The document, which summarizes a visit to Washington by the head of British intelligence and other officials, says "intelligence and facts were being fixed" by the White House to support Bush's war plans.
Bush has long maintained that he didn't decide finally to go to war until shortly before combat began in March 2003.
"The facts were not being fixed in any shape or form at all," Blair said, coming to Bush's defense. "No one knows more intimately the discussions that we were conducting as two countries at the time. ... All the way through that period of time, we were trying to look for a way of managing to resolve this without conflict."
Bush said he considered war "the last option" and insisted that he wasn't fixated on removing Hussein by force.
"There's nothing farther from the truth. My conversations with the prime minister were, 'How can we do this peacefully,'" he said. "We worked hard to figure out how we could do this peacefully."
The top-secret memo, written eight months before Bush ordered the Iraq invasion, was leaked to The Sunday Times of London last month in the closing days of Blair's successful campaign for a third term as prime minister. Despite his victory, Blair emerged from the election weakened by his party's losses in Parliament, a setback driven in part by anger over the Iraq war.
Critics accuse Bush and Blair of misusing intelligence during the run-up to the war, and the leaders seemed ready for a question about the memo as they faced reporters in the White House. Both noted their willingness to work with the United Nations as evidence that they wanted a peaceful resolution.
Still, there's little doubt that Bush was prepared to use military force long before he chose that option. The president directed Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld to begin considering military options for Hussein's removal as early as 2001.
It's also clear, with hindsight, that Bush was wrong about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. Yesterday, Bush blamed the war on Hussein's refusal to abide by U.N. demands for weapons inspections.
"He made the decision, and the world is better off without Saddam Hussein in power," Bush said.
The lingering questions about the rationale for war overshadowed Blair's announcement that the two leaders are nearing agreement on a plan to forgive 100 percent of Africa's foreign debt. Blair hopes to make African debt relief a centerpiece of next month's Group of Eight summit in Scotland, which will bring together leaders from the seven major industrialized democracies, plus Russia.
"I think there is a real desire to make sure that we cancel the debt," Blair said, adding that the proposal would include compensation for institutions holding bad African debt. The two leaders also agreed to increase foreign aid to African countries that meet certain conditions.
As expected, Bush announced plans to provide an additional $674 million for African famine relief and other humanitarian assistance this year. The money will be shifted from other aid accounts. Blair has called on wealthy nations to double aid to Africa and will push for it when G-8 leaders gather at the Glen- eagles golf resort July 6.
But Bush drew a line short of Blair's goal.
"Nobody wants to give money to a country that is corrupt, where leaders take money and put it in their pocket," Bush said. "We're really not interested in supporting a government that doesn't have open economies and open markets."