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At U.N., Bush defends Iraq invasion

President Bush on Tuesday defended his decision to invade Iraq in a speech at the United Nations, urging the world to turn its attention to fighting terror.
A giant screen projects President Bush as he speaks before the annual U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday.
A giant screen projects President Bush as he speaks before the annual U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday.NBC News
/ Source: The Associated Press

President Bush delivered an unapologetic defense of his decision to invade Iraq, telling the United Nations Tuesday that his decision “helped to deliver the Iraqi people from an outlaw dictator.” Later, Bush condemned the beheading of a U.S. hostage by an Islamic militant.

Bush’s 24-minute speech to the U.N. General Assembly appealed to the world community to join together in supporting the new Iraqi interim government. He included an appeal for intensifying the global war against terrorism and for focusing energies on humanitarian missions, from helping to end the bloody violence in Sudan to combating AIDS in Africa.

Two years after he told the world body that Iraq was a “grave and gathering danger” and challenged delegates to live up to their responsibility, Bush strongly defended his decision to lead a coalition that overthrew Saddam Hussein’s regime without the blessings of the U.N. Security Council.

Bush reached out to the international organization to help with the reconstruction of Iraq, noting that the prime minister of Iraq’s interim government, Ayad Allawi, was among those attending the session.

“The U.N. and its member nations must respond to Prime Minister Allawi’s request and do more to help build an Iraq that is secure, democratic, federal and free,” he said.

“We can expect terror attacks to escalate” as elections approach in both Afghanistan and Iraq, he added.

Kerry counters
Six weeks before Election Day, Bush’s comments were directed as much to his audience at home as to the assembled U.N. delegates.

His Democratic rival, John Kerry, said Bush failed to present a true picture of Iraq to the United Nations and “does not have the credibility to lead the world.”

“The president really has no credibility at this point,” Kerry said in his first news conference since Aug. 9. “He has no credibility with foreign leaders who hear him come before them and talk as if everything is going well, and they see that we can’t even protect the people on the ground for the election.”

“After lecturing them, instead of leading them to understand how we are all together with a stake in the outcome of Iraq, I believe the president missed an opportunity of enormous importance for our nation and for the world,” Kerry said.

Bush’s speech included an appeal for more humanitarian involvement, ranging from helping to end the bloody conflict in Sudan to fighting AIDS in Africa. “AIDS is the greatest health crisis of our time and our unprecedented commitment will bring new hope to those who have walked too long in the shadow of death,” he said.

Annan urged respect for 'rule of law'
Bush spoke shortly after U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan opened the 191-nation gathering with a warning that the “rule of law” is at risk around the world. Annan last week asserted that the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq “was illegal” because it lacked such Security Council approval.

“No one is above the law,” Annan said. He condemned the taking and killing of hostages in Iraq, but also said Iraqi prisoners had been disgracefully abused, an implicit criticism of the U.S. treatment of detainees at Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad.

Bush, meeting with the interim Iraq leader after the session, condemned the beheading this week of U.S. hostage Eugene Armstrong. The CIA has determined that the voice on a tape of the beheading was Islamic militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and that al-Zarqawi was likely the person who did the beheading.

“We all stand in solidarity with the (remaining) American that is now being held captive,” Bush said.

“A democratic Iraq has ruthless enemies,” Bush added in his U.N. speech, asserting that “a terrorist group associated with Al Qaida is now one of the main groups killing the innocent in Iraq today, conducting a campaign of bombings against civilians and the beheadings of bound men.”

Bush told the subdued U.N. session that terrorists believe that “suicide and murder are justified ... and they act on their beliefs.” He cited recent terror acts, including the death of children earlier this month in their Russian schoolhouse.

“The Russian children did nothing to deserve such awful suffering and fright and death,” the president said.

Many world leaders were reluctant to comment immediately on Bush’s speech, including South African President Thabo Mbeki who said “I’m still reading it.” Others were cautious. Diplomats and government officials refused to comment publicly on the upcoming U.S. election, saying it was an internal matter for the American people.

Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero said while he agreed with Bush’s comments on defending liberty and democracy, there were other issues with which there was disagreement. He didn’t elaborate, but earlier mentioned that Spain would not contribute troops to the U.S.-led force in Iraq.

“Combating terrorism is a part of the shared goals of all nations, of all democratic bodies,” he said. “There is a very strong solidarity going beyond what might be any differing views on any specific country or any specific method.”

Rationale for invasion stated
With the casualty toll in Iraq still rising and with a rash of recent suicide attacks, Bush did not dwell on his decision to lead the invasion of Iraq. But he suggested that the Security Council had not followed through after it “promised serious consequences” for Saddam’s defiance.

“The commitments we make must have meaning. When we say serious consequences, for the sake of peace there must be serious consequences. And so a coalition of nations enforced the just demands of the world,” Bush said.

“My nation is grateful to the soldiers of many nations who have helped to deliver the Iraqi people from an outlaw dictator,” he said.

Bush’s remarks drew applause only once — at the end of his speech.

He also told the gathering he was proposing a “democracy fund” within the United Nations which he said would help countries lay the foundations of democracy by instituting the rule of law, independent courts, a free press, political parties and trade unions. “Money from the fund would also help set up voter precincts and polling places and support the work of election monitors,” he said.

Bush said the United States will make an initial contribution. “I urge all other nations to contribute as well,” he said.

Bush’s U.N. speech was sandwiched between meetings with world leaders — and a sit-down with Annan. It is an unusual burst of diplomacy for Bush, who has been keeping a punishing travel schedule to swing states as he seeks re-election.

Also Tuesday, Bush met with the leader of India, and was to sit down later with the heads of Pakistan, Afghanistan, Japan and Iraq. Last year, Bush met with the leaders of France and Germany — two of his harshest critics on Iraq. But there are no Europeans on this year’s list, and aside from his host, Annan, no sharp critics of the Iraq war.