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KWAME HOLMAN: Congressional leaders invited Prime Minister Blair to Washington to thank him for joining the U.S. campaign in Iraq with a sizable military force. Congress voted to give Blair its gold medal. Blair’s brief, seven hour stopover on his way to Asia, has been overshadowed by disputes about intelligence information he and President Bush used to buttress their case for war. For weeks, the prime minister has faced accusations in parliament that he exaggerated the threat posed by weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Blair has defended British intelligence reports, including that Iraq tried to purchase uranium from the African nation of Niger. Yesterday, Blair was jeered in the House of Commons after saying, once again, “we did the right thing” in Iraq.
TONY BLAIR: It’s not as if this link between Niger and Iraq was some invention of the CIA or Britain. We know in the 1980s, that Iraq purchased from Niger over 217 tons of uranium, and therefore it is not beyond the bounds of possibility. Let’s at least put it like this, that they went back to Niger again, and that is why I stand by entirely the statement that was made in the September dossier.
KWAME HOLMAN: President Bush cited that evidence in his state of the union speech in January. But this week, Bush administration officials distanced themselves from the British claims.
COLIN POWELL: And I would not dispute them or disagree with them or say they’re wrong and we’re right, or we’re right and they’re wrong. I wouldn’t do that, because intelligence is of that nature. Some people have more sources than others on a particular issue. Some people have greater confidence in their analysis.
KWAME HOLMAN: Under fire for months at home for having joined the war in Iraq, Prime Minister Blair has seen his poll ratings sink further since the intelligence disputes. In a recent survey, 54 percent of respondents said they don’t trust the prime minister. At the capitol this afternoon, Prime Minister Blair met privately with congressional leaders from both parties and then was escorted to the House of Representatives to address the full membership. (Sustained applause)
TONY BLAIR: Thank you. Mr. Speaker and Mr. Vice President, honorable members of Congress, I’m deeply touched by that warm and generous welcome. That’s more than I deserve and more than I’m used to, quite frankly. (Laughter and applause) And we are bound together as never before, and this coming together provides us with unprecedented opportunity, but also makes us uniquely vulnerable. And the threat comes because in another part of our globe there is shadow and darkness where not all the world is free, where many millions suffer under brutal dictatorships, where a third of our planet lives in a poverty beyond anything even the poorest in our societies can imagine, and where a fanatical strain of religious extremism has arisen that is a mutation of the true and peaceful faith of Islam and because in the combination of these afflictions, a new and deadly virus has emerged.
The virus is terrorism, whose intent to inflict destruction is unconstrained by human feeling and whose capacity to inflict it is enlarged by technology. This is a battle that can’t be fought or won only by armies. We are so much more powerful in all conventional ways than the terrorists. Yet even in all our might, we are taught humility.
In the end, it is not our power alone that will defeat this evil. Our ultimate weapon is not our guns, but our beliefs. (Applause) Can we be sure that terrorism and weapons of mass destruction will join together? 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, 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. That is something history will not forgive. (Applause)
We promised Iraq democratic government; we will deliver it. (Applause) We promised them the chance to use their oil wealth to build prosperity for all their citizens, not a corrupt elite, and we will do so. We will stay with these people so in need of our help until the job is done. ( Applause )
And then reflect on this: How hollow would the charges of American imperialism be when these failed countries are and are seen to be transformed from states of terror to nations of prosperity; from governments of dictatorship to examples of democracy; from sources of instability to beacons of calm?
And how risible would be the claims that these were wars on Muslims if the world could see these Muslim nations still Muslim, but with some hope for the future, not shackled by brutal regimes whose principle victims were the very Muslims they pretended to protect? (Applause)
To be a serious partner, Europe must take on and defeat the anti-Americanism that sometimes passes for its political discourse. And what America must do is show that this is a partnership built on persuasion, not command. (Applause)
Then the other great nations of our world and the small, will gather around in one place not many, and our understanding of this threat will become theirs. And our job– my nation, that watched you grow, that you fought alongside and now fights alongside you, that takes enormous pride in our alliance and great affection in our common bond– our job is to be there with you. You’re not going to be alone. We will be with you in this fight for liberty. (Applause)
We will be with you in this fight for liberty. And if our spirit is right and our courage firm, the world will be with us. Thank you. (Cheers and applause)
KWAME HOLMAN: Late this afternoon Prime Minister Blair and President Bush met with reporters at the White House.
REPORTER: Mr. President, others in your administration have said that your words on Iraq and Africa did not belong in your state of the union address. Will you take personal responsibility for those words? And the both of you, how is it that two major oil leaders such as yourselves have had such a hard time persuading other major powers to help stabilize Iraq?
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: First, I take responsibility for putting our troops into action. And I made that decision because Saddam Hussein was a threat to our security and the threat to the security of other nations. I take responsibility for making the decision, the tough decision to put together a coalition to remove Saddam Hussein, because the intelligence, not only our intelligence, but the intelligence of this great country, made a clear and compelling case that Saddam Hussein was a threat to security and peace. I say that because he possessed chemical weapons and biological weapons. I strongly believe he was trying to reconstitute his nuclear weapons program.
And I will remind the skeptics that in 1991, it became clear that Saddam Hussein was much closer to developing a nuclear weapon than anybody ever imagined. He was a threat. I take responsibility for dealing with that threat. We are in a war against terror, and we will continue to fight that war against terror. We’re after al-Qaida, as the prime minister accurately noted, and we’re dismantling al-Qaida. The removal of Saddam Hussein is an integral part of winning the war against terror. A free Iraq will make it much less likely that we’ll find violence in that immediate neighborhood. A free Iraq will make it more likely we’ll get a Middle Eastern peace. A free Iraq will have incredible influence on the states that could potentially unleash terrorist activities on us. And yeah, I take responsibility for making the decisions I made.
TONY BLAIR: Let me just say this, on the issue to do with Africa and the uranium: The British intelligence that we had, we believe is genuine. We stand by that intelligence. And one interesting fact, I think people don’t generally know, in case people should think that the whole idea of a link between Iraq and Niger was some invention. In the 1980s we know for sure that Iraq purchased around about 270 tons of uranium from Niger, so I think we should just factor that in to our thinking there. As for other countries, actually other countries are coming in. We have in with us now round about nine other countries who will be contributing or are contributing literally thousands of troops.
I think I have a right to say the polls in their sector are somewhere in the region of 20 different countries offering support and I have no doubt at all we will have international support in this. Indeed, to be fair, even to those countries that opposed the action, I think they recognize the huge importance of reconstructing in Iraq. And it’s an interesting thing. I was at a European meeting just a couple of weeks ago where, as you know, there were big differences between people over the issue of Iraq. And yet I was struck by the absolutely unanimous view that, whatever people felt about the conflict, it was obviously good that Saddam was out, and most people now recognize that the important thing is that we all work together to reconstruct Iraq for the better, so that it is a free and stable country.
KWAME HOLMAN: The prime minister and his wife were scheduled to have dinner with President and Mrs. Bush before leaving Washington later tonight.