Iraqi weapons must be found, president says

Bush visits injured troops in Washington, Bethesda

War In Iraq

April 12, 2003|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

BETHESDA - President Bush said yesterday that even though the United States has toppled Saddam Hussein's regime, the military mission in Iraq would not be over until that country is cleared of chemical and biological weapons.

After an emotional visit with wounded troops at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Bush offered his first public remarks since the fall of Baghdad. He spoke on a day when U.S. forces were still engaged in dangerous combat in scattered areas of Iraq.

"The priority of this campaign," Bush told reporters, "is to rid the Iraqi people of any vestiges of Saddam Hussein and his regime, so we can not only free the people, but clear that country of weapons of mass destruction.

"The specific thing I want to hear is that our commanders say we've achieved the clear objective I set out," he said. "That's when we will say this is over."

Bush's main justification for invading Iraq was that Hussein had stockpiled weapons, in defiance of United Nations resolutions, that terrorist groups could use against the United States. No such weapons have been uncovered, though administration officials have said that an aggressive search cannot begin before the shooting war ends.

The president's comments came in his most extensive question-and-answer session with reporters in more than two weeks. At moments, his eyes filled with tears as he spoke of observing the wounds, from lost limbs to damaged vocal cords, of men and women whom he had ordered into battle.

Bush bestowed 10 Purple Hearts, the military decoration given to wounded U.S. troops, during his visit to the naval hospital here and earlier in the day at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Northwest Washington. He also watched as two Marines were sworn in as U.S. citizens.

One of them, Lance Cpl. O.J. Santamaria of the Philippines, whose shoulder was shattered in a battle in Nasiriyah in southern Iraq, received citizenship under a program that expedites the process for troops who fight for their country in war.

According to White House officials who saw the hospital room ceremony, Santamaria was receiving a blood transfusion as he stood, overcoming weakness, to take the oath.

"My fellow American, you're a good man," the president told him, adding, "What a moving moment."

If Bush was at times misty-eyed in his remarks in a lobby at the naval hospital, he also seemed to brim with the confidence of a leader satisfied that the war he began was seeing success.

Asked if he felt vindication when U.S. forces stormed into Baghdad and ousted Hussein's regime, only days after some retired military commanders had criticized the war strategy, the president said, "I don't take anything personally."

"The wonderful thing about free speech, and a lot of TV stations, is you get a lot of opinions. Some of them are right, and some of them are really wrong." Grinning, he added, "But that's OK."

Warning for Syria

After his two hospital visits, each of which lasted about an hour, the president flew to Camp David in Maryland's Catoctin Mountains, where he has spent every weekend since the war began.

In his comments to reporters, Bush issued a stern warning to Syria, which U.S. officials said might become a haven for fleeing members of Hussein's Iraqi regime. He said he expected Syria to cooperate if any of the toppled Iraqi leaders tried to cross the border.

"We expect them to do everything they can to prevent people who should be held to account from escaping in their country," Bush said. "And if they are in their country, we expect the Syrian authorities to turn them over to the proper folks."

The president said he was heartened by the images of Baghdad residents celebrating in the streets. He made no mention of the looting and lawlessness raging in the Iraqi capital and other cities.

"I don't think I'll ever forget - I'm sure a lot of other people will never forget - the statue of Saddam Hussein falling in Baghdad," he said, "and then seeing the jubilation on the faces of ordinary Iraqis as they realized that the grip of fear that had them by the throat had been released. The first signs of freedom."

He was asked how much progress was being made in the search for Hussein and the search for American prisoners of war in Iraq - and which of those two tasks was more urgent.

Declining to prioritize, the president said that he did not know whether Hussein was alive but that he was "no longer in power." And he vowed to use "every resource" to find POWs.

"We pray that they are alive," he said, "because if they are, we'll find them."

Lynch to return

The war's highest-profile POW, 19-year-old Jessica Lynch, who was rescued by U.S. special operation forces, is expected to arrive at Walter Reed army hospital this evening.

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