- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 8, 2005

President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, visiting in Washington, yesterday pledged more aid and debt relief to Africa and agreed to fight air pollution.

On another matter, the two men disputed the so-called “Downing Street memo” which said intelligence was manipulated to justify war against Iraq.

Mr. Blair appeared more aggressive on aid initiatives, and Mr. Bush announced $674 million in U.S. aid to fight famine in Africa.

The president accused Mr. Blair’s political opponents of releasing the July 2002 Downing Street memo last month in a failed attempt to derail the prime minister’s re-election bid.

“They dropped it out in the middle of his race,” Mr. Bush said in an East Room press conference with Mr. Blair. “And somebody said, ‘Well, we had made up our mind to go and use military force to deal with Saddam.’ Nothing farther from the truth.”

The memo, written by a foreign policy aide to Mr. Blair, said “the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy” of war with Iraq.

“No, the facts were not being fixed in any shape or form at all,” Mr. Blair said.

Yesterday’s press conference marked the first time Mr. Bush was publicly questioned about the Downing Street memo. The memo consists of notes taken by British national security aide Matthew Rycroft to summarize a meeting between Mr. Blair and his Cabinet, including Richard Dearlove, the head of Britain’s MI6 intelligence service.

According to Mr. Rycroft, Mr. Dearlove spent part of the July 23 session recounting his recent meetings with Bush administration officials at the White House. Mr. Rycroft summarized Mr. Dearlove’s impressions about a “perceptible shift in attitude” in Washington.

“Military action was now seen as inevitable,” Mr. Rycroft wrote. “Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and [weapons of mass destruction]. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy.”

The memo was publicly disclosed days before Mr. Blair and his party faced voters in his bid for re-election last month.

In the U.S., some liberals have called it grounds for impeaching Mr. Bush, while conservatives dismissed it as an aide’s impressions of a Cabinet minister’s impressions of unnamed U.S. officials — hardly a smoking gun.

“And let me remind you that that memorandum was written before we then went to the United Nations,” Mr. Blair said yesterday.

Britain and the U.S. took their case against deposed Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein to the United Nations in September 2002, more than seven weeks after the memo was written. Two months later, the U.N. Security Council unanimously passed a resolution warning Saddam that he would be ousted if he did not change his ways.

“We were trying to look for a way of managing to resolve this without conflict,” Mr. Blair said. “We weren’t able to do that.”

He added: “There was no way that Saddam Hussein was ever going to change the way that he worked, or the way that he acted.”

Mr. Bush agreed.

“Look, both us of didn’t want to use our military,” he said. “It’s the last option that the president must have — and it’s the last option I know my friend had, as well.”

The president was unapologetic about his decision to use force, saying it was triggered by Saddam’s insistence on flouting a string of U.N. resolutions.

“He made the decision,” Mr. Bush said. “And the world is better off without Saddam Hussein in power.”

Mr. Blair’s support for military action has cost him significant political support in Britain, notwithstanding his re-election last month. Many observers said he was seeking a payback of sorts from Mr. Bush by pressing for greater aid to Africa.

But the president pointed out that America is already giving massive amounts of aid to Africa and is leery of extending that aid to nations wracked by corruption.

“Over the past four years, we have tripled our assistance to sub-Saharan Africa,” he said. “And now America accounts for nearly a quarter of all the aid in the region.”

Nonetheless, Mr. Bush pledged to work with Mr. Blair on African aid, debt forgiveness and global warming when the two meet next month in Scotland for the Group of Eight economic conference.

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