Bush says U.S. staying vigilant on home front

His administration not `distracted' by war

War In Iraq

April 01, 2003|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

PHILADELPHIA - President Bush warned yesterday that Saddam Hussein's regime or its sympathizers might seek to launch terrorist strikes on American soil to retaliate for the U.S.-led war in Iraq.

"The dying regime in Iraq may try to bring terror to our shores," Bush said in a speech at a U.S. Coast Guard facility here. "Other parts of the global terror network may view this as a moment to strike, thinking that we're distracted. They're wrong."

In fact, he declared, his administration is not "distracted" by war and is acting boldly to protect the homeland even as it wages war in Iraq.

Bush's warning followed a suicide bombing Saturday that killed four American soldiers. Afterward, an Iraqi military official said that thousands of volunteers were prepared to commit more such attacks against U.S.-led troops. The Iraqi official did not say that U.S. civilians would be targeted. The president also used his speech to offer a strenuous defense of the administration's war effort, in the face of criticism that it failed to anticipate the fierce resistance from Iraqi paramilitary forces.

Though he did not mention complaints that the U.S. offensive has not been fast or intensive enough, the president rebuffed any such criticism.

Three times, he enumerated what he said U.S.-led forces had achieved in 11 days, in particular the seizing of much of southern and western Iraq. "Day by day," he said, "we are moving closer to Baghdad. Day by day, we are moving closer to victory."

Skeptics have argued that the administration has failed to offer persuasive evidence of its charge that Hussein's regime is associated with terrorist groups. Yesterday, Bush made the assertion again, expressing optimism that "our victory will remove a sponsor of terror, armed with weapons of terror."

Bush's brief visit here seemed intended to convince Americans that, as a wartime leader focused on toppling a dangerous foreign regime, he is paying close attention to the home front, too.

Previously, the president has offered assurances that he remains committed to easing Americans' hardships in a struggling economy. Bush has drawn a lesson from his father, whose immense popularity during the 1991 Persian Gulf war plummeted, leading to his re-election loss - in part, because many Americans did not believe the elder Bush cared much about their economic problems.

Yesterday, the president turned his focus to domestic terrorism and defended his administration's efforts to prevent future attacks. Before the war, some Democrats had suggested that Bush was too preoccupied with Iraq and was paying scant attention to tracking down Osama bin Laden and safeguarding the nation from more terrorist strikes.

Appearing with Tom Ridge, the secretary of homeland security, Bush said that members of bin Laden's al-Qaida terrorist network were being pursued around the world.

And at home, he said, the administration is taking aggressive steps to prevent an attack. Those steps include interviewing Iraqi-born people willing to speak about terrorist plots they might know of, protecting the nation's food supply and restricting air travel over major cities.

Bush commended the U.S. Coast Guard for taking on new responsibilities in the post-Sept. 11 era. He noted that the agency has become a vital part of the new Department of Homeland Security. It is now responsible for preventing terrorist activity at the nation's ports.

Bush also noted that a Coast Guard cutter played a role in securing the port of Umm Qasr in Iraq, escorting a British ship with humanitarian supplies. And all the while, he said, the Coast Guard was still carrying out traditional duties at home.

"We still count on you to rescue fishermen," Bush said.

Since war began, Democrats have muted much of their criticism of Bush, as the nation rallied around the president.

But they have lodged one complaint persistently: that when Bush asked for more than $74 billion in emergency wartime funding from Congress, he failed to seek enough money to protect America from terrorist attacks. About $4 billion of Bush's funding request would go for homeland security.

Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, a Connecticut Democrat, urged the president yesterday to spend more money to increase inspections of cargo that comes through American ports. Lieberman complained that only 4 percent of containers that pass through U.S. ports are inspected.

"Our 361 ports nationwide are Achilles' heels in the domestic war against terrorism," the senator said. "Despite the Bush administration's acknowledgment of the problem ... too many urgent improvements are stuck at the dock."

The White House released a statement yesterday saying that Bush's budget for next year calls for a 10 percent increase in funding for the Coast Guard, in part to increase security at ports.

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