Bush says, `Good riddance -- the world is better off'

He revels in capture, eagerly adds it to list of his term's achievements

The Capture Of Saddam Hussein

December 16, 2003|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - A buoyant President Bush bid "good riddance" to Saddam Hussein yesterday and sounded eager to ride momentum from Hussein's capture into next year's election, saying he looked forward to defending his foreign policy against critics.

Holding a year-end news conference at the White House about 48 hours after Hussein was captured near his hometown of Tikrit, Bush was asked whether he had a personal message for Iraq's former dictator.

"Good riddance - the world is better off without you, Mr. Saddam Hussein," the president replied. "I find it very interesting that when the heat got on, you dug yourself a hole and you crawled in it. And our brave troops, combined with good intelligence, found you."

Bush, who had appeared subdued Sunday in a three-minute speech about the capture, was far more expansive yesterday in a news conference that lasted 48 minutes and was dominated by Hussein and Iraq.

He hailed an "achievement" that he said "comes at the end of an extraordinary year for our country - abroad and here at home."

Eleven months before the presidential election, Bush has enjoyed a boost from a resurgent economy. In addition, Hussein's capture has made it harder, at least for now, for critics to attack another perceived vulnerability: the president's handling of the Iraq war and its aftermath.

Basking in the moment, Bush began his session with reporters by ticking off what he called his recent achievements, foreign and domestic. His list included reform of Medicare, the improvement of forest care and the outlawing of a procedure that opponents call "partial-birth abortion." He took credit for "robust growth" in the economy.

"I want to thank the Congress for passing my jobs and growth package - which is doing just what it was supposed to do," Bush said of the tax cuts he championed.

Under his leadership, Bush asserted, the U.S. military is continuing an "offensive against terrorist enemies around the world." He said he was eager to defend his decision to invade Iraq, as well as his broader drive against terrorism.

"I look forward to the debate," he said. "I look forward to making my case to the American people about why America is more secure today, based upon the decisions that I've made."

The president was careful not to engage in outright gloating over Hussein's capture or to reveal any personal pride in it. That was so even though Hussein is someone Bush has condemned as a murderous dictator, a man his father waged a war against as president and someone who, Bush has said, tried to assassinate his father.

Bush said he received a call from his father Sunday morning, after news of the capture had been made public. "He just said, `Congratulations, it's a great day for the country,'" Bush recalled.

He said he envisioned a trial for Hussein that would be regarded internationally as fair and just. But he did not hide his conviction that Hussein inflicted atrocities on innocent Iraqis: "He murdered them, he gassed them, he tortured them, he had rape rooms."

Initially, the president's poll numbers rose little with the improving economy. The coming weeks will tell whether he received a sustained boost from Hussein's arrest.

His approval ratings had been lingering just above 50 percent, though an ABC News-Washington Post poll taken Sunday, after news broke of Hussein's capture, showed Bush with a 57 percent rating, up 4 points from last week.

Yesterday, the president stuck to a tactic he has employed for months: He insisted that now was not yet the time for politics, while sounding every bit the politician who can proudly enumerate his accomplishments. At the same time, Bush has been holding fund-raisers, often several a week. And he has raised more than $100 million for his campaign, a record for the presidential primary season.

At one point, Bush seemed to restrain his disgust when asked about his Democratic rival Howard Dean's recent mention of a "theory" that Bush had advance knowledge of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

"There's time for politics," Bush said, before pursing his lips and weighing his words. "There's time for politics, and I - it's an absurd insinuation."

The president made clear again that he plans to harness the memory of 9/11 - often - in justifying his foreign policy.

Asked about nations that opposed the war in Iraq, Bush said the Sept. 11 attacks "changed the equation" and forced the United States to deal with threats differently than in the past.

Asked whether he was coordinating efforts in Iraq in a way that would help him win re-election, Bush said no. He then added: "I've got a solemn duty to do everything I can to protect the American people. I will never forget the lessons of September the 11th, 2001."

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