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Bush defends invasion of Iraq, despite WMD questions

'We did the right thing'

President Bush stands with Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge on Thursday at the Port of Charleston, South Carolina.
President Bush stands with Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge on Thursday at the Port of Charleston, South Carolina.

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President Bush defends the Iraq invasion despite questions about prewar intelligence on WMD. (February 5)
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George W. Bush
Iraq
Charleston (South Carolina)

CHARLESTON, South Carolina (CNN) -- While acknowledging that no weapons of mass destruction have been found in Iraq, President Bush on Thursday delivered an impassioned defense of his decision to invade the country and topple the regime of Saddam Hussein, saying the world was now safer.

"Knowing what I knew then and knowing what I know today, America did the right thing in Iraq," Bush said, in a speech delivered at the port of Charleston. Cheered heartily by the crowd, Bush ran though a litany of actions he ascribed to Saddam, including funding of terrorism, the torture of his own citizens and invasion of neighboring countries.

"Because we acted, Iraq's nightmare is over," Bush said as he delivered an especially strong repetition of a theme he has been sounding for several months.

His comments came on the same day that CIA Director George Tenet delivered a separate speech in Washington, defending the agency's handling of intelligence. The agency has come under fire because of the WMD questions.

Bush acknowledged that stockpiles of weapons have not been found, but he maintained that Saddam was intent on developing such weapons. And he noted that the search was ongoing in Iraq.

"We had a choice," Bush said. "Either take the word of a madman or take action to defend the American people. Faced with that choice, I will defend America every time."

Bush's trip to South Carolina comes two days after Democrats held their presidential primary there. And it marks the second time that Bush has chosen to visit a state in the wake of a high-profile Democratic contest. He visited New Hampshire shortly after the Democratic primary there last month.

The White House said the trip was not political.

Bush's speech hit on a number of familiar themes as he touted the administration's record on pumping up the economy, bolstering homeland security and fighting the war on terror.

While he cited no one by name, Bush appeared to address some Democratic critics, including many on the campaign trail, who have assailed the president's actions in Iraq.

"If some politicians in Washington had their way, Saddam Hussein would still be in power," Bush said. "All of the Security Council resolutions and condemnation would still be issued, and still be ignored -- scraps of paper, amounting to nothing. Other regimes and terror networks, had we not acted, would have concluded that America backs down when things get tough."

Bush outlined efforts to protect the United States after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. He pointed to increased security and inspections at U.S. ports as well as initiatives with governments abroad to inspect some cargo before it departs for the United States.

"We're determined to keep lethal weapons and materials out of the hands of our enemies and away from our shores," Bush said, with the Charleston Harbor in the background. "We have a duty to protect the American people, a solemn duty."

White House officials have said the president's proposed budget for 2005 includes a 13 percent increase in funding for port security.

The president's speech follows last week's testimony by former top U.S. weapons inspector David Kay, who told lawmakers that it was "highly unlikely" there were WMD stockpiles in Iraq before the U.S.-led invasion.

That reassessment of the threat posed by Iraq has angered many Democrats who charge the administration misled the country about the danger posed by Saddam in order to bolster the case for war.

"In Iraq, our survey group is on the ground looking for the truth," Bush said. "We will compare what the intelligence indicated before the war with what we have learned afterward. As the chief weapons inspector said, we have not yet found the stockpiles of weapons that we thought were there."

-- Written by CNN.com producer Sean Loughlin in Washington


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