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Bush Takes Responsibility for Iraq Claim

Bush Takes Responsibility for Iraq Claim

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WASHINGTON (AP) -- President Bush on Wednesday accepted personal responsibility for a discredited portion of last winter's State of the Union address that suggested Saddam Hussein was shopping for nuclear material in Africa.

"I take personal responsibility for everything I say, absolutely," the president said during an hour-long White House news conference where he sought to quell a controversy that has dogged his administration for weeks.

It was the first time he had specifically taken responsibility for the words. In the past, he sidestepped the question, taking responsibility only for his decisions.

Bush also expressed strong support for his national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, defending her against criticism over her role in the controversy.

Speaking at his first solo news conference since March, the president said the deaths of Saddam Hussein's two sons marked progress in assuring the Iraqi people that the old regime was gone forever. Still, he said he doesn't know how close American troops are to finding the deposed dictator.

"Closer than we were yesterday, I guess. All I know is we're on the hunt," he added.

Bush also said there was a "real threat" of a new al-Qaida attack on the United States, responding to a Department of Homeland Security warning about the possibility that the terror organization tied to the Sept. 11 terror attacks may try more suicide hijackings.

Without shedding much light on the warning, Bush said, "I'm confident that we will thwart their attempts."

On one simmering domestic issue, the president said he opposes gay marriage, and suggested his administration might propose legislation on the subject.

"I believe a marriage is between a man and a woman. And I think we ought to codify that one way or the other. And we've got lawyers looking at the best way to do that," he said.

Despite nearly daily deaths of American troops in postwar Iraq, Bush appealed for patience as Iraqis try to form a new, free society. "I didn't expect Thomas Jefferson to emerge in Iraq in a 90-day period," he said.

Bush said the United States and its allies would "complete our mission in Iraq, We will complete our mission in Afghanistan ... We will wage the war on terror against every enemy that plots against our people."

In his Jan. 28 State of the Union speech, Bush uttered 16 words that have come back to haunt him: "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."

Many CIA officials doubted the accuracy of the British intelligence. While previously declining to take personal responsibility for those words, CIA Director George Tenet did so, followed by a senior White House aide, deputy national security adviser Stephen Hadley.

Rice has also come under criticism in connection with the speech and events leading to the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. Bush strongly defended his national security adviser, saying she was an "honest, fabulous person" and the United States was lucky to have her in government.

Fielding questions in the summer heat, Bush also defended his decision not to declassify a portion of a congressional report dealing with intelligence lapses in advance of the Sept. 11 attacks, even though several influential members of Congress and the government of Saudi Arabia had requested him to do so.

Bush told reporters, "since I'm in charge of the war on terror, we won't reveal source and methods" of gathering intelligence.

The president opened his news conference with a pledge to fight the war on terrorism as well as push the economy toward recovery. "We are beginning to see hopeful signs of faster growth in the economy which over time will yield new jobs. Yet the unemployment rate is too high and we will not rest until Americans looking for work can find a job," Bush said.

He also asked Congress to pass measures on his list of priorities -- an energy bill, a child tax credit for lower-income families, and a Medicare prescription drug bill among them.

On other issues, Bush:

--Said the United States must sort through "literally miles of documents" to learn the truth of whether Saddam's regime had ties to al-Qaida and details about its weapons programs. "We've been there for 90 days," he said.

--Said his tax cuts accounted for 25 percent of the mushrooming federal budget deficit, but said the cuts were necessary to prevent a deep recession. Spending increases, mostly on war and homeland security, account for much of the rest of the deficit, he said.

--Renewed his contention that the best way to deal with a nuclear weapons program in North Korea is to draw regional neighbors into efforts to stop it. Working directly with North Korea didn't work in the past, he said.

--Defended his goal of raising at least $170 million for a primary election next year in which he faces no GOP opponent. Asked how he will spend it, he said: "Watch me."

--Renewed his commitment to spending $15 billion over five years to combat AIDS in Africa and the Caribbean.

--Wouldn't say whether he will ultimately send ground forces into Liberia but reiterated that President Charles Taylor must step aside, and a cease fire must take hold, before Americans go in to help stabilize the country for the United Nations and relief groups.

-Said "all options remain on the table" on confronting Iran's alleged attempts to build nuclear weapons, but said he hoped tensions could be resolved peacefully. He noted that Iran still officially seeks the destruction of Israel.

-Steered clear of the campaign to recall California Gov. Gray Davis, saying it was an issue for state voters. "I view it like an interested political observer would view it," he said.

The appearance before reporters marked the eighth time since taking office that Bush has fielded questions at a formal news conference, and the first time since American and British forces invaded Iraq last March.

By comparison, Bill Clinton had held 33 formal news conferences at a comparable point in his administration; Bush's father, former President George H.W. Bush, had 61.

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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