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George W Bush under fire over ‘brutal’ Iraq invasion slip-up

George W Bush launched the war on Iraq (Thaier al-Sudani/AP)

Former president George W Bush is facing criticism after describing the invasion of Iraq — which he led as commander in chief — as “brutal” and “wholly unjustified” before correcting himself to say he meant to refer to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“The result is an absence of checks and balances in Russia, and the decision of one man to launch a wholly unjustified and brutal invasion of Iraq — I mean of Ukraine,” Mr Bush said during a speech at his presidential centre in Dallas.

The 75-year-old former president jokingly blamed the mistake on his age, shaking his head and correcting himself, drawing laughter from the crowd.

“Iraq, too — anyway,” he added, before moving on without explaining the Iraq reference.

In his remarks, Mr Bush also likened Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelensky to Britain’s wartime leader Winston Churchill, a comparison he also made earlier this month after meeting Mr Zelensky via video chat, according to social posts from his presidential centre.

But the comment, which was quickly and widely shared on social media, drew condemnation from critics pointing to Mr Bush’s decision to launch a US invasion of Iraq in 2003 after an inquiry into alleged weapons of mass destruction that were never discovered.

“If you were George W. Bush, you think you’d just steer clear of giving any speech about one man launching a wholly unjustified and brutal invasion,” former representative Justin Amash wrote on Twitter.

“I wish he would have been this honest and critical of himself 20 years, countless lives, and trillions of dollars ago,” Donald Trump Jr said in a tweet.

“George Bush is laughing in this clip because he knows he and every other Iraq War supporter were rewarded with riches and big media jobs for their work killing a million people, rather than being held accountable and shunned,” tweeted David Sirota, a former speechwriter for Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign.

Launched with a search for suspected weapons of mass destruction (WMD) that never materialised, the Iraq war resulted in the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s government, along with the deaths of US service members and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians.

All US forces were withdrawn at the end of 2011, but just three years later, American troops were back to help Iraq beat back the Islamic State group, which had swept across the border from Syria to gain control of a large swathe of the country.

Since leaving office, through his presidential centre, Mr Bush has focused on assisting veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, including helping with the transition to civilian life and hosting recreational events.

Mr Bush, whose slips of the tongue came to be known as “Bushisms” through his presidency, has also subsequently poked fun at the unsuccessful WMD hunt, including during the 2004 White House Correspondents Dinner, as a photo of him looking under Oval Office furniture appeared on a screen.

“Those weapons of mass destruction have got to be here somewhere,” he joked.