Canberra, Australia As thousands of anti-war demonstrators protested outside Parliament, President Bush today thanked Australia for sending troops to Iraq and Afghanistan to stand and fight alongside the United States "instead of wishing and waiting while tragedy drew closer."
Bush personally saluted Prime Minister John Howard as "a leader of exceptional courage" for not buckling earlier this year to his nation's largest peace marches since the Vietnam War. Instead, Howard sent 2,000 troops to Iraq.
Forty-one opposition lawmakers signed a letter criticizing Bush's war decision, saying the war was conducted on the basis of a clear and present danger in Iraq that did not exist.
Outside Parliament, thousands of demonstrators banged drums and shouted at the president from security lines 100 yards away from where Bush entered. Other protesters jostled with security officials outside the U.S. Embassy compound where Bush stayed overnight.
Bush came here, his last stop on a six-country trip, from Indonesia where he tried to convince skeptical Islamic leaders Wednesday that America is not biased against Muslim countries. He praised the anti-terror work of Indonesia's president in an appearance near the site of an al-Qaida-sponsored bombing that killed more than 200.
Before speaking to Parliament, Bush met with Howard and said the United States hoped to complete a free-trade agreement with Australia by December.
In his speech, Bush vigorously defended using force in Afghanistan and Iraq, saying that terrorists had been trying to gain chemical, biological or nuclear weapons.
While no weapons of mass destruction have been found, Bush said the United States had discovered secret biological laboratories in Iraq, design work on prohibited long-range missiles and a campaign to hide an illegal weapons program.
"Who can possibly think that the world would be better off with Saddam Hussein still in power?" Bush said. "Today Saddam's regime is gone and none should mourn its passing."
The president was interrupted briefly by an Australian lawmaker who opposed the war. Bush smiled politely, winked at someone in the audience and then continued.
Earlier during a 3 1/2-hour stop on the Indonesian resort island of Bali, Bush praised President Megawati Sikarnoputri, an ally against terrorism, and tried to dispel the conviction of many Muslims that the war on terror is, in fact, a war against Islam.
Bush presented his case in a meeting with moderate religious leaders.
"I felt he was a quite warm person," said Azyumardi Azra, a Muslim scholar at the National Islamic University in Jakarta. "He responded and he listened."
With gunboats on the horizon and 5,000 troops on shore, Bush's visit took him within several miles of the spot where 202 people were killed in al-Qaida linked terrorist bombings a year ago.
Trying to counter anti-American lessons in many Indonesian schools, the president said he would ask Congress for $157 million in education grants for Megawati's government.