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Bush Defends Iraq War, Takes Responsibility for Controversial Allegations Against Baghdad

U.S. President George W. Bush says he bears personal responsibility for a line in his State of the Union Address alleging Iraq tried to buy Uranium in Africa. During a wide-ranging White House news conference, Mr. Bush defended his decision to wage war in Iraq, while relying on international diplomatic pressure to deal with Iran and North Korea.

With Congress heading out of town for a month, and his own vacation due to begin on Saturday, the president went before reporters to recap the events of recent weeks and take their questions.

He began with Iraq, saying the deaths of Saddam Hussein's sons in a shootout with U.S. forces helped convince the Iraqi people that they are indeed free. He was then asked if the United States is any closer to getting the ousted Iraqi leader.

"I don't know how close we are to getting Saddam Hussein. Closer than yesterday, I guess. All I know is we are on the hunt," said Mr. Bush.

The president said he got good intelligence information prior to the war about the threat posed by Saddam Hussein and his desire to acquire weapons of mass destruction. Mr. Bush said evidence will be found to back the accusations and urged patience.

But some of the evidence cited by the Bush administration before the start of combat in Iraq has since come into question, most notably a charge that Saddam Hussein tried to buy uranium in Africa. The head of the Central Intelligence Agency and a senior White House national security aide have said they are to blame for including the accusation in the president's January State of the Union address. At his White House news conference, Mr. Bush acknowledged he shares responsibility, and tried to put the controversy to rest.

"I take personal responsibility for everything I say, of course. Absolutely," he stressed. "I also take responsibility for making decisions on war and peace."

President Bush said when it comes to North Korea and Iran - two other countries believed to be pursuing weapons of mass destruction - the proper course is to pursue diplomacy and international pressure. He noted that earlier in the day he discussed the North Korean problem with Chinese President Hu Jintao.

"We are actually beginning to make serious progress about sharing responsibility on this issue in such a way that I believe will lead to an attitudinal change by [North Korean President] Kim Jong Il which will be very positive for peace in the region," he said.

Mr. Bush also talked about the ongoing war on terrorism, and he said once again the he would not declassify portions of a congressional report on the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. Those pages are believed to contain allegations linking individual Saudis to the hijackers.

The Saudi foreign minister made one final attempt Tuesday to convince the president to reconsider. They met shortly after the president completed talks with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Mr. Sharon refused to give up plans to build an Israeli security fence through the West Bank - a project which has angered the Palestinian Authority. But despite this and other setbacks, Mr. Bush said he still believes it is possible to meet the 2005 timeline for a Palestinian state included in the road map for peace drafted by the United States, Russia, the U.N., and the EU "I do think it is realistic," said Mr. Bush. "I also know when we start sliding goals it makes progress less realistic."

On domestic matters, the president said he sees hopeful signs in the American economy. He also called on Congress to pass his legislative priorities including an energy bill, and a measure to help older Americans pay for their prescription drugs.