UNITED NATIONS -- President Bush stood before an annual gathering of world leaders yesterday and forcefully defended his decision to invade Iraq, urging all nations to join the United States in rooting out terrorism and establishing democracy in place of oppressive regimes.
Less than a week after UN Secretary General Kofi Annan said the US-led invasion ''was illegal" because it was not approved by the UN Security Council, Bush argued that the war was justified because the UN had told Saddam Hussein that failure to comply with weapons inspections would have ''serious consequences."
Bush linked the violent insurgency in post-Hussein Iraq with recent terrorist attacks in Russia, Spain, Israel, and Turkey. He portrayed the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan as twin fronts in the battle against terrorism -- and as evidence that democracy can take hold across the globe. Later in the day, the president said the CIA was ''just guessing" when it issued pessimistic predictions of a difficult future in Iraq.
''There is no safety in looking away, seeking the quiet life by ignoring the struggles and oppression of others," the president declared in a 24-minute address to the UN General Assembly. ''Every nation that wants peace will share the benefits of a freer world. And every nation that seeks peace has an obligation to help build that world."
Several hours after Bush's speech, Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kerry held a press conference in which he charged that the president ''failed to level with the world's leaders" and missed an opportunity to gain allies in the struggle to stabilize Iraq. Bush, Kerry said, has lost credibility on the international stage because he refuses to confront the reality of a chaotic Iraq.
''Iraq is in crisis, and the president needs to live in a world of reality, not in a world of fantasy spin," Kerry told reporters before a campaign event in Jacksonville, Fla. Bush has had a testy relationship with the UN throughout his presidency, and he was received politely but not enthusiastically yesterday. He spoke shortly after Annan opened the 191-nation gathering by saying that the ''rule of law" is at risk even in countries that purport to defend it.
''No one is above the law," Annan warned.
The speech welcoming UN representatives to New York City is an annual tradition for American presidents, but this year it came at a crucial time in Bush's reelection campaign. Six weeks before Election Day, the president is facing a chorus of critics domestically and abroad who are challenging his decision to oust Hussein and decrying the turmoil that has wracked Iraq since then. In addition, the failure to find stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq or to detect significant links between Hussein and Al Qaeda have done little to help his case. Senators from Bush's own Republican Party have been voicing concerns about the president's handling of military and reconstruction efforts.
Still, Bush looked confident and relaxed appearing before an organization that has rebuffed him in the past -- and one that Bush's political allies have mocked on the campaign trail. In his address, he vowed that the United States and its allies would continue to work to bring democracy to Afghanistan and Iraq.
Bush quoted the organization's own Security Council resolution in justifying the legality of the 2002 invasion of Iraq.
''The Security Council promised 'serious consequences' for [Hussein's] defiance," Bush said. ''And the commitments we make must have meaning. When we say 'serious consequences,' for the sake of peace, there must be serious consequences."
Unlike his speech at the UN two years ago, where he warned that Iraq could be able to build a nuclear weapon ''within a year," Bush made only one passing reference to weapons of mass destruction. Instead, he portrayed the toppling of Hussein as part of the global battle for human rights and freedom.
''The security of our world is found in the advancing rights of mankind," he said.
The president made brief acknowledgment of the difficulties in stabilizing Iraq but predicted that ''freedom will find a way" regardless of the obstacles. He warned of terrorist attacks that may be aimed at disrupting upcoming elections in Afghanistan and Iraq and said they cannot shake the world community from its mission.
''As members of the United Nations, we all have a stake in the success of the world's newest democracies," he said.
Later in the day, interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi of Iraq met with Bush and offered him effusive thanks as well as an optimistic view of Iraq's future. Allawi attended yesterday's speech at the UN and is scheduled to address Congress today and visit Bush at the White House tomorrow, as Bush seeks to convey an image of Iraqi stability and progress in reconstruction efforts.
''The war now in Iraq is really not only an Iraqi war, it's a war for the civilized world to fight terrorists and terrorism," Allawi said. ''We are winning. We are making progress in Iraq. We are defeating terrorists."
After yesterday's meeting with Allawi, Bush said that Kerry has changed his mind on Iraq too often to be ''credible" as a critic of the war and asserted that Kerry thinks the world would be ''better off" with Hussein still in power -- something Kerry has made clear he does not believe.
''My opponent has taken so many different positions on Iraq that his statements are hardly credible at all," the president said.
Bush said the CIA's July assessment of Iraq didn't reflect the most recent positive developments in the country. The report, which emerged publicly last week, predicted a best-case scenario of continued instability and said civil war is a real possibility.
''The CIA laid out several scenarios that said life could be lousy, life could be OK, life could be better," Bush said. ''They were just guessing as to what the conditions might be like. The Iraqi citizens are defying the pessimistic predictions."
Last night at a rally in Florida, Kerry seized on Bush's CIA comment and mocked it for a crowd of over 8,000 gathered in the arena used by the Orlando Magic basketball team.
''Ladies and gentlemen, does that make you feel safer?" he asked, triggering a resounding response of ''NO!"
''Does that give you confidence this president knows what he's talking about?" Kerry added. ''This president ought to be turning that CIA over, upside down, if that's all they were doing. The CIA and the nation deserve a better assessment than that by the president of the United States of America."
Bush's speech reiterated a central foreign policy theme of his administration: that democratic governments in Iraq and Afghanistan would help transform the broader Middle East. ''For too long, many nations -- including my own -- tolerated, even excused, oppression in the Middle East in the name of stability," Bush said. ''Oppression became common, but stability never arrived."
In a rare move, Bush acknowledged the Middle East peace process had suffered ''setbacks and frustrations," and delivered a litany of actions that both sides must take to achieve peace.
''Israel should impose a settlement freeze, dismantle unauthorized outposts, end the daily humiliation of the Palestinian people, and avoid any actions that prejudice final negotiations," Bush said, hours before Secretary of State Colin L. Powell was scheduled to meet with Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom of Israel.
The president also urged Palestinians to find leaders that do not ''tolerate corruption and maintain ties to terrorist groups."
Bush also highlighted the deteriorating situation in the Sudanese region of Darfur, where government-backed militias have forced tens of thousands into refugee camps. Bush called on Sudan ''to honor the cease-fire it signed, and to stop the killing in Darfur," but did not say whether the United States would contribute more funds to the African Union force trying to ease the situation there.
Farah Stockman and Glen Johnson of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Rick Klein can be reached at email@example.com.