Mr Bush, in South Africa on the second leg of his African tour, faced reporters for the first time since the White House admitted on Tuesday he had overstated Iraq’s alleged efforts to procure uranium. But he deflected a question on whether he regretted highlighting the allegation in his State of the Union address in January.
“There is no doubt in my mind that Saddam Hussein was a threat to the world peace and there is no doubt in my mind the United States along with our allies and friends did the right thing in removing him from power,” Mr Bush said. “I am absolutely confident in the decision I made.”
Speaking at a joint press appearance in Pretoria with South African President Thabo Mbeki, he added: “I’m confident that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.”
In his address to the American nation delivered before the war with Iraq, Mr Bush said: “The British government has learned Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.”
The White House said the statement should not have been included in the address because it rested on flawed intelligence. The charge stemmed from forged documents suggesting Iraq sought uranium ‘yellowcake’ from Niger and from separate information that Saddam sought the radioactive material from other African nations, White House national security spokesman Michael Anton said on Tuesday.
“We now know that documents alleging a transaction between Iraq and Niger had been forged,” Anton said, stressing the White House did not learn the documents were fraudulent before including the charge in the speech. “The other reporting that suggested that Iraq had tried to obtain uranium from Africa is not detailed or specific enough for us to be certain such attempts were in fact made. Because of this lack of specificity, this reporting alone did not rise to the level of inclusion in a presidential speech.”
But, Anton stressed, the allegations that Iraq sought uranium “was not an element underpinning the judgment” of most US intelligence agencies that Saddam had revived his stalled nuclear weapons programme. US-led forces in Iraq have yet to unearth conclusive evidence of chemical, biological or nuclear weapons or close ties between Saddam and Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida network, two major justifications for the war.
The White House’s backpedalling followed the publication of a British parliamentary commission report raising serious questions about the reliability of British intelligence cited by Mr Bush. A former US ambassador who investigated the Niger allegation for the CIA said on Sunday that the Bush administration had “twisted” data on Iraq to suit its case for war. In a New York Times article, Joseph Wilson said he had researched the matter in 2002 and had informed the administration the claims were false.
Opposition Democrats in the US have gone on the offensive against Mr Bush over the admission he used flawed intelligence, while top Republican lawmakers accused them of exploiting a relatively minor issue.
Meanwhile, US forces in Iraq have arrested two more former officials on Washington’s most wanted list, Central Command said yesterday.
Mahmud Dhiyab Al-Ahmad, Saddam Hussein’s former interior minister was number 29 on the top 55 list.
Mizban Khadr Al Hadi, a former senior member of the Ba’ath Party and Revolutionary Command Council, turned himself in to the occupation forces in Baghdad. He was number 23 on the list. Thirty-four most wanted officials from the former regime have been taken into custody in Iraq, Central Command said.