Who? Us?

British Prime Minister Tony Blair joined President Bush on Tuesday in rejecting claims the U.S. government manipulated intelligence reports as a means of forcing a military showdown with Iraq.

Appearing with Bush at a press conference in the East Room of the White House, Blair maintained that “the facts were not being fixed in any way, shape or form” and that the two governments tried to get Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein to comply with U.N. edicts before they resorted to war.

“We were trying to look for a way to manage this without conflict,” Blair said. “As it happens, we were unable to do so.”

Bush agreed, insisting that his conversations with Blair in the run-up to war were about “how can we do this peacefully.” But Saddam, in custody and facing the prospect of a trial later this summer, “ignored the world.”

“Both of us didn’t want to use our military,” Bush said. “Nobody wants to use their military. It’s the last option. We worked hard to see how we could do this peacefully.”

Fresh questions about the war were raised in recent British elections when a document written by the chief of British intelligence was circulated. The so-called Downing Street memo purported that the United States was poised for war eight months before the onset of hostilities.

“Military action was now seen as inevitable,” Richard Dearlove told Blair and his senior defense policy advisers in the memo, written in July 2002. “Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD (weapons of mass destruction). But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy.”

Both Bush and Blair noted that the memo was issued before the United States went before the U.N. Security Council, where Washington successfully sought a resolution authorizing military action if Saddam, among other things, failed to provide evidence that Iraq was complying with orders to divest itself of weapons of mass destruction.

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

Regardless, more than two years after the invasion, troops have been unable to find any WMDs in Iraq. The war has resulted in the deaths of at least 1,677 American troops. The British military has lost 89.

Blair was in Washington to touch base with the president on the Group of Eight summit of industrial nations, set for Scotland next month. The two leaders said they were near an agreement on forgiving African debt, a move the prime minister said is vital “to help that troubled continent come out of the poverty and deprivation that millions of people suffer.”

Bush and Blair are further apart over additional direct aid to Africa, although the president promised that more U.S. funds are forthcoming and that “America will continue to lead the world in our duty to help the most vulnerable people.”

Both said increased financial assistance would be directed toward those African nations that vow to fight corruption and move toward democracy.

The two men also discussed global warming. According to Blair, they provided “different perspectives on the issue.” The prime minister is pushing developed nations to reduce carbon-monoxide emissions to help address the problem. Bush has indicated he’s unwilling to take strong steps unless competing economies _ like India and China _ follow suit.

“I’ve always said it’s a serious, long-term problem that needs to be dealt with,” Bush said.

(Reach Bill Straub at straubb(at)shns.com)