US President George W. Bush on Tuesday sought to blunt criticism he exaggerated prewar intelligence by saying his conclusion that Iraq had banned weapons was shared by the US Congress and the UN Security Council.
Bush made the argument in remarks to thousands of camouflage-wearing US Army troops, many of them bound for Iraq, some just returned.
Prewar intelligence on Iraq and how it was used by the Bush administration looms as a major issue during the presidential campaign this year after former chief US weapons hunter David Kay said it appeared intelligence pointing to the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq was wrong.
Bush's Democratic challengers accuse him of hyping the threat to justify an invasion. The US Senate Intelligence Committee is planning to examine whether top administration officials exaggerated or misused the intelligence.
"My administration looked at the intelligence and we saw a danger," Bush said.
"Members of Congress looked at the same intelligence, and they saw a danger. The United Nations Security Council looked at the intelligence and it saw a danger. We reached a reasonable conclusion that Saddam Hussein was a danger," he said.
In addition, he said in 1998 then-president Bill Clinton and the US Congress "made it the policy of the United States to change the regime in Iraq."
Bush said that he had no doubts about his decision to go to war regardless of whether clear-cut evidence of weapons of mass destruction is found.
"Saddam Hussein showed defiance and we had a choice of our own: Either take the word of a madman, or take action to defend America and the world. Faced with that choice, I will defend America every time," he said.
The president was at Fort Polk, an Army training base in central Louisiana, to pump up morale. Two Fort Polk soldiers from the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment were killed last week in a roadside bomb attack in Iraq.
Wearing a blue shirt with sleeves rolled up, Bush ate lunch with troops from the 39th Brigade Combat Team, who are members of an Arkansas National Guard unit that will deploy to Iraq in March.
"Man, what a meal," Bush said as he sat down to a beef enchilada MRE (meals ready to eat), the kind that troops eat when they are in the field.
The White House said Bush's visit with National Guard troops was not an attempt to blunt a controversy over the president's own National Guard service during the Vietnam era.
"This has to do with the president thanking our troops for their service and sacrifice in an important cause," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said.
Democrats have accused Bush of being AWOL from his National Guard duties in the latter part of 1972 after transferring from the Texas Air National Guard to an Alabama unit. The White House released a flurry of papers last week to try to answer the critics and prove Bush served in Alabama.
Seeking to bolster his argument that Iraq is now "the central front of the war on terrorism," Bush seized on a letter purportedly written by Abu Musab Zarqawi, a Jordanian with alleged links to Osama bin Laden, that urged suicide bombings against Iraq's Shiite majority in a bid to spark civil war.
"The terrorists know that the emergence of a free Iraq will be a major blow against the worldwide terrorist movement, and in this, they are correct," Bush said.
No evidence has come to light linking Saddam's Iraq and al-Qaeda, but the Bush administration has said members of al-Qaeda have entered Iraq in the wake of the US-led invasion to try to attack American targets.
After the lunch with the Guard members, Bush met with the families of seven soldiers killed in Iraq.
"There were certainly tears, there were a lot of hugs. There was also a lot of laughter" as the families recalled the soldiers who died, McClellan said.
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