Bush chides Israelis for escalation

Military offensive termed `not helpful' to U.S. peace efforts

`People losing their lives'

President defends U.S. nuclear plans, says Hussein must go

March 14, 2002|By Mark Matthews and David L. Greene | Mark Matthews and David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - In a rare rebuke, President Bush criticized Israel's large-scale military offensive in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, saying yesterday that it was "not helpful" to American efforts to produce a cease-fire in the bloody conflict.

The president, at a White House news conference, also expressed renewed determination to topple Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq, saying bluntly: "We're going to deal with him."

And he defended Pentagon contingency plans that expand the list of possible U.S. nuclear targets beyond Russia and China to include North Korea, Iraq, Iran, Libya and Syria. He said the United States must keep "all options on the table."

Bush's criticism of Israel, while mild, was rare for a president who has met with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon four times at the White House while repeatedly criticizing Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat for failing to control violence. Bush has consistently backed Israel's right to defend itself against terrorism.

His remarks came a day after Israel launched its biggest military operation since the invasion of Lebanon in 1982, moving 150 tanks into the West Bank city of Ramallah and a separate incursion into a Palestinian refugee camp in the Gaza Strip. The operations, involving 20,000 Israeli soldiers, left at least 32 Palestinians dead.

"Frankly, it's not helpful what the Israelis have recently done," Bush said. "I understand someone trying to defend themselves and to fight terror, but the recent actions aren't helpful.

"I certainly hope that Prime Minister Sharon is concerned about the loss of innocent life," Bush added.

The president spoke as a special U.S. envoy, Anthony C. Zinni, left for the region in his third attempt to forge a cease-fire and to bring Israelis and Palestinians back to the bargaining table under plans spelled out last year by CIA Director George J. Tenet and former Sen. George J. Mitchell.

Zinni is expected to propose American monitors who would watch for cease-fire violations.

The president said that when he decided last week to send Zinni back, "we had a lot of phone conversations with people in the Middle East which led us to believe that there is a chance to ... create the conditions to get into Tenet."

Expressing sympathy for the suffering of both sides, Bush said: "It's a terrible period of time when a lot of people are losing their lives, needlessly losing life."

The worsening bloodshed has threatened to dominate the Middle East tour by Vice President Dick Cheney, whose mission was to consult U.S. allies on the administration's determination to topple Hussein and eliminate Iraq's ability to produce weapons of mass destruction.

During Cheney's first two stops, the leaders of Jordan and Egypt discouraged U.S. military action to topple the Iraqi leader while emphasizing their distress over Israeli-Palestinian violence. Both have urged the United States to take a central role in trying to end the conflict.

Bush said he understood that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict "creates unrest throughout the region, more so now than ever in the past."

But using his most threatening language about Hussein to date, Bush indicated that while he would listen to warnings from regional leaders who are wary of any U.S. attack in Iraq, he would not be deterred from trying to oust him.

"One of the things I've said to our friends is that we will consult, that we will share our views of how to make the world safe," Bush said.

The president said Cheney is reminding regional leaders of the danger posed by Iraq "and that we need to work in concert to confront this danger."

"This is a nation run by a man who won't let inspectors into the country, a man who's obviously got something to hide. And he is a problem. And we're going to deal with him," Bush said.

He said it would be in keeping with Hussein's cruel character to still be holding an American pilot from the Persian Gulf war in 1991, a possibility that some news organizations have reported.

The Pentagon's nuclear contingency plans, disclosed Saturday in the Los Angeles Times, have drawn criticism from arms-control advocates in the United States and raised alarms in Europe and the Arab world.

U.S. officials have said the plans are intended to give the president the option of using the ultimate weapon in the U.S. arsenal - not only against nuclear powers but against states that might aim chemical or biological weapons at the United States or its allies. All of the countries on the list are known to possess such weapons; Iran, Iraq and North Korea are also suspected of seeking nuclear arms.

Bush said he is committed to reducing the U.S. nuclear arsenal, noting his agreement with Russia to slash the number of warheads to 1,700 to 2,200 on each side.

"We're a peaceful nation," Bush said. "We've got all options on the table, because we want to make it very clear to nations that you will not threaten the United States or use weapons of mass destruction against us or our allies or friends."

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