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Sun Nov 16 2003 19:32:23 ET

President George Bush today told critics of war in Iraq they were "lucky" to be free to protest when he comes to Britain.

Mr Bush arrives in England on Tuesday on the first state visit by an American President.

It comes after security services were placed on their second highest state of alert following information that al Qaida supporters in north Africa could be planning an attack.

The alert is said to be unrelated to the President's visit but will further tighten security on what was already described as an "unprecedented" policing operation.

Five thousand officers and hundreds of security agents will protect the President during the series of protests planned to mark his stay, including a mass national rally on Thursday.

The White House say Mr Bush is "not fazed" by the prospect of mass demonstrations.

And today he told campaigners: "Aren't you lucky to be in a country that encourages people to speak their mind?"

Mr Bush insisted he had been right to invade Iraq and the fierce attacks on the US-led coalition would not stop reconstruction.

The death toll of US troops since the war began passed the 400 mark yesterday when two Black Hawk helicopters crashed in northern Iraq killing 17 American soldiers.

But Mr Bush, in an interview with BBC's Breakfast with Frost recorded several days ago, said the scale of the task had been anticipated

Evidence of weapons of mass destruction would be found, he pledged and he defended US and UK intelligence as "sound".

He repeatedly praised key ally Tony Blair and said: "I am convinced that the decisions we made ... will make the world more peaceful and more free."

Former foreign secretary Robin Cook said the interview showed Mr Bush had not learned from what had "plainly" gone wrong in Iraq.

"If President Bush does not learn the lessons there is that risk he will ask us to do it again in another country," he added.

With pessimism about Iraq's future growing, polls suggest the President's visit may do the Prime Minister's public standing more harm than good.

Mr Blair admitted in a newspaper article Mr Bush's critics were "rubbing their hands at the scope for embarrassing him".

But the PM insisted: "I believe passionately that there could not be a better moment for him to come to the UK than now.

"Nor a better opportunity for our two countries to re-affirm both our special relationship and our commitment to give the Iraqi people the chance for a better, more prosperous and peaceful future."

However, former International Development Secretary Clare Short: "The people in Britain have to say to both leaders: 'You have messed up badly, you have messed up the world, it's more dangerous, and this is what we've got to say to you.'"

Menzies Campbell, Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman, added: "This may be the wrong visit at the wrong time but President Bush should go back to Washington knowing that in Britain there are grave reservations about his foreign policy."

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