Washington, July 30 (Reuters): After weeks of blaming others, President George W. Bush accepted responsibility today for making a now-discredited charge that Iraq was seeking uranium from Africa.
In a wide-ranging White House Rose Garden news conference, his first such solo performance since March, Bush also cautioned Americans that it would take time to prove Saddam Hussein had a weapons of mass destruction programme.
The US and Britain used the imminent threat of Iraq using weapons of mass destruction for launching an invasion, but the administration has since said it is looking for evidence of such a weapons “programme”.
He said he could not say for sure whether US troops were closing in on Saddam after his two sons were killed last week but supposed that searchers were “closer than we were yesterday, I guess.”
US troops searched for the former dictator in villages near his hometown of Tikrit today after a new message purportedly from Saddam vowed vengeance for the killing of his feared sons.
Bush said “all options remain on the table” for dealing with Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons programme but insisted: “I really believe we can solve this issue peacefully,” and called on other nations, particularly in Europe, to exert pressure.
As he has in the past, he spoke out for those Iranians protesting against the government in Tehran. “The people of Iran are interested in freedom, and we stand by their side.”
Bush’s news conference came just before he departs on Saturday on a month-long vacation at his Texas ranch, interspersed with various official and campaign fund-raising events.
The claim that Iraq was seeking uranium from Africa for a nuclear weapons programme was made by Bush in his state of the union address last January as evidence that Iraq represented a threat to the US.
In recent weeks the claim has been discredited as being based partly on forged documents, and in the Washington uproar that followed, Bush and his top aides blamed CIA director George Tenet for failing to head off the 16-word line in the speech.
Ultimately deputy national security adviser Stephen Hadley accepted a share of the blame but Bush had declined to take personal responsibility.
His acknowledgement at the news conference represented an attempt to finally put the issue to rest as Democrats continue claiming Bush has a “credibility gap.”
“I take personal responsibility for everything I say,” Bush said when asked about the accusation. He also defended his national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, who has also been criticised for letting the claim get into the speech. “Dr Condoleezza Rice is an honest, fabulous person and America is lucky to have her service, period,” he said.
Bush is under strong pressure to produce evidence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction since he cited it as the main cause for war. He was briefed about the search yesterday by David Kay, who is leading the search for the US military.
“It’s going to take time for us to gather the evidence and analyse the mounds of evidence, literally, the miles of documents that we have uncovered,” he said.
He acknowledged that he needed to produce the evidence: “In my line of work it’s always best to produce results.”
And he said he was confident “the truth will come out” and that as Iraqis become less fearful of a return of Saddam to power, “we will gain more cooperation in our search for the truth in Iraq.”
Bush strode into the Rose Garden at a time when Americans are increasingly uneasy about the US military deployment in Iraq as US troops die daily nearly three months after Bush declared major combat operations over. Bush said conditions in most of Iraq are growing more peaceful.