Anti-terrorist tactics proved, president says

Bush celebrates arrest of key al-Qaida operative

Interview on war, domestic issues

Remarks cover tax cuts, religion, drugs for elderly

March 04, 2003|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - President Bush yesterday hailed the capture of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the al-Qaida operative who is thought to have masterminded the Sept. 11 attacks, as proof positive that his strategy for pursuing the terrorist network was succeeding.

"I told the American people that this is a different kind of war against al-Qaida and that we'll have to hunt them down one at a time," Bush said. "Over the weekend, they saw what I meant."

The president made his comments at the White House in a 35-minute interview with The Sun and other newspapers. They were his first public reaction to the arrest of Mohammed, the al-Qaida operations chief who is now under interrogation by U.S. authorities.

U.S. officials said yesterday that they believe Mohammed's capture helped foil attacks he had been plotting against undisclosed commercial sites in the United States.

Bush celebrated the arrest at a time when Democrats and other critics have argued that his focus on Iraq has distracted the president from the need to protect Americans from terrorist threats. Bush's message was that he can effectively handle both priorities at once.

Mohammed "is - was - al-Qaida's senior general when it comes to plotting attacks on America," said Bush, who vowed to pursue al-Qaida until it "is completely dismantled."

In the wide-ranging interview, Bush appearing relaxed and at times bantering with reporters, addressed the nuclear threat from North Korea, exerted more pressure on the United Nations to authorize military force in Iraq and bluntly denied that Saddam Hussein's purported 1993 attempt to kill Bush's father played into his decision to go after Hussein.

On the domestic front:

Bush spoke about a new Medicare proposal that he will address in a speech in Washington today. The president said the plan would offer prescription-drug coverage to seniors in the traditional Medicare program as well as to those who opt to enroll in private health plans.

The president defended his religious faith against complaints that it is seeping too deeply into his policies. Some critics have attacked Bush's policy of opening more federal grant money to religious charities that offer social services. "My job may be to live religion, but it's not to promote religion," Bush said. "My job is to promote a concept of service in America."

The president defended the new round of tax cuts he has proposed in Congress, saying they would promote growth and help erase federal deficits in the long run. The plan faces opposition from Democrats and some Republicans who say it would offer limited, if any, economic stimulus and would balloon deficits for years.

Bush asserted that the current federal budget deficit was "caused by the recession and by the need to strengthen our military, so that if we go to war, we will win." Democrats contend that Bush's 2001 tax cuts contributed to current deficits, which followed years of surpluses.

Bush spoke with reporters in the ornate Roosevelt Room, then eagerly led a tour of the Oval Office. He said he hoped that reporters could help him lay out to Americans his policies on Iraq and other topics - to "explain to people why I make the decisions I make."

At times cracking jokes, at other moments conveying a sense of gravity over the prospect of war, Bush seemed determined to display a softer side at a moment when the nation is on the brink of war and critics are portraying him as an arrogant leader, poised to launch an invasion in Iraq regardless of whether U.S. allies support him.

Dressed in a gray suit and red tie, Bush held court at the center of a large table. An aide had placed a blank notepad in front of him and a single peppermint candy that he never unwrapped.

The president opened the session with a detailed statement, beginning, as he often does, by insisting that he is carefully managing the struggling economy even as war looms.

Bush's father, after having enjoyed soaring approval ratings during the 1991 Persian Gulf war, lost his re-election bid in large part, some in his own party said, because he could not convey to Americans that he was concerned about their economic hardships.

Yesterday, the president laid out his new tax-cut plan, which calls for ending the tax that shareholders pay on corporate dividends and accelerating the income tax rate reductions approved by Congress in 2001.

War as stimulus

Asked whether he is concerned that fresh tax cuts might threaten the economy as America faces a costly war, the president turned the argument on its head. He argued that his tax plan would stimulate the economy and thus make it easier for the country to pay for a war.

He offered new specifics about his plans to reform Medicare, outlining an approach that would give all beneficiaries some federal help in buying prescription drugs, which the federal health program for the elderly does not now cover.

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