WASHINGTON - President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair yesterday vehemently denied the implication of the so-called "Downing Street memo" that they decided in 2002 to go to war against Saddam Hussein, well before the issue was raised in the United Nations or Congress.
It was the first time both men had addressed the memo. They were asked about it as they stood side-by-side at a press conference in the East Room.
The memo contains minutes of a July 23, 2002, cabinet meeting at Mr. Blair's offices at No. 10 Downing St., written by a British foreign policy aide, and was published May 1 by the Sunday Times of London.
The memo has caused a sensation among opponents of the war in Iraq who argue that it buttresses their contention that the Bush administration deliberately manipulated intelligence to justify war in Iraq on grounds since proved false that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.
Asked if the facts were manipulated, Mr. Blair insisted the facts for going to war "were not being fixed, in any shape or form at all."
He said, "Now no one knows more intimately the discussions that we were conducting as two countries at the time than me. And the fact is, we decided to go to the United Nations and went through that process, which resulted in the November, 2002, United Nations resolution to give Saddam Hussein a final chance to comply with international law. He didn't do so. And that was the reason why we had to take military action."
Mr. Bush said he was struck by the timing of the memo, that it was "dropped" into the public fray while Mr. Blair was facing a hard-fought re-election battle, which he won.
The President spoke directly to the allegation that right from the start he and Mr. Blair decided to use military force against Saddam Hussein.
"There's nothing farther from the truth. My conversation with the prime minister was, how can we do this peacefully? What could we do? And at the meeting, you know, that evidently that took place in London, happened before we even went into the United Nations - or I went to the United Nations.
"And so it's a - look, both of us didn't want to use our military. Nobody wants to commit military into combat. It's a last option. You know, the hardest things I do as a President is to try to comfort families who have lost a loved one in combat. It's the last option that the President must have, and it's the last option I know my friend had as well.
"And so we worked hard to see if we could figure how to - out how to do this peacefully, to put a united front up to Saddam Hussein that said the world speaks. And he ignored the world. Remember, [U.N. resolution] 1441 passed the Security Council unanimously. He made the decision. And the world is better off without Saddam Hussein in power."
Public opinion in both countries has swung against the war in Iraq.
In a CBS News Poll taken late in May, 57 percent of 1,150 adults polled nationwide said they disapprove of the way Mr. Bush is handling the situation in Iraq. In the United Kingdom, the public is 2-1 against the war.
A Washington Post-ABC News poll released yesterday said that, for the first time since the war in Iraq began, more than half of the American public believes the fight there has not made the United States safer.
Nearly three quarters of Americans say the number of casualties in Iraq is unacceptable, while two-thirds say the U.S. military there is bogged down and nearly six in 10 say the war was not worth fighting - in all three cases matching or exceeding the highest levels of pessimism yet recorded. More than four in 10 believe the U.S. presence in Iraq is becoming analogous to the experience in Vietnam.
Mr. Blair insisted that it is vital for the Middle East peace process and "the future of the world" that "we succeed in Iraq." He said the goal is democracy and that "our troops work together very, very closely there, and I would like to pay tribute not just to the bravery of the British troops that work there and other coalition troops, but to the United States forces that do such a magnificent job there, and often in very, very difficult circumstances."
The meeting yesterday was the first since Mr. Blair won re-election and comes just before he takes over as head of the European Union and also hosts the G-8 economic meeting in Gleneagles, Scotland, next month. He came to the United States in part this week to ask the United States for $25 billion for new African aid, saying the problems of poverty, HIV/AIDS, hunger, and water purification are dire.
Mr. Bush said the United States will provide $674 million in funds, already authorized, for humanitarian aid in Africa but will not go along with doubling international aid to Africa to $25 billion as Mr. Blair seeks.
However, Mr. Blair said he is hopeful that there will be an agreement before the G-8 meeting in July on 100 percent cancellation of the debt that developing African nations owe. Some debt has been forgiven but most economists think it is not sufficient. Mr. Bush has opposed forgiving all debt owed to the International Monetary Fund.
The Blade's wire services contributed to this report.
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