Bush defends Iraq policy among cheering troops

President visits home of 101st Airborne, talks with kin of slain soldiers

March 19, 2004|By Ken Fireman | Ken Fireman,NEWSDAY

FORT CAMPBELL, Ky. - Surrounded by thousands of flag-waving soldiers yesterday, President Bush offered a full-throated rebuttal to Democratic charges that he has mishandled the war on terror and failed to support U.S. military personnel.

In a speech at the home of the legendary 101st Airborne Division, which recently returned from Iraq after suffering more casualties than any other Army division, Bush also urged nervous European leaders to stand firm in the face of terrorist attacks such as last week's train bombings in Madrid.

Bush told the troops that their service overseas had made America more secure and the world more free.

He strongly defended his decision to launch the invasion of Iraq one year ago today, saying the overthrow of Saddam Hussein was an integral part of the U.S. strategy for confronting global terrorism.

"In one year's time, Saddam Hussein has gone from a palace to a bunker to a spider hole to jail," Bush said, prompting loud cheers and approving shouts of "hooah" from the soldiers.

"When Saddam Hussein went down, the terrorists lost an ally forever."

During a four-hour visit, the president and first lady Laura Bush also lunched with troops and met relatives of about 40 soldiers who were killed during the division's deployments. Fort Campbell has lost 65 soldiers in Iraq, seven in Afghanistan and nine in the Philippines, according to base personnel.

Several soldiers expressed delight at Bush's visit, saying it would be a major boost to morale.

"Just for him to take the time and come here personally to congratulate us for being in Iraq, it makes you feel good," said Sgt. Jermy Prescott of Fort Worth, Texas, who returned last month after an 11-month tour in Iraq. "It makes you proud to wear the uniform. It's an honor to serve under him."

The event was nominally nonpolitical, but it showcased Bush at the start of a hotly contested campaign in one of his most cherished personas: a commander-in-chief, clad in an olive green military jacket, amid cheering and supportive troops.

And while Bush did not mention Democratic candidate John Kerry by name, he implicitly refuted Kerry's charge that he has failed to provide adequate support for military personnel and their families. Bush said he had signed into law three military pay increases and boosted funding for base housing and schools.

"America owes those who do their duty, our military, our gratitude," he said. "We owe you more than gratitude. We also owe you the material support you need to do your job. ... I'll work to make sure you have every resource and every tool you need to fight and win the war on terror."

Bush also took an indirect slap at Kerry by thanking "every member of Congress" who voted for an $87 billion appropriation bill to fund U.S. operations in Iraq. Kerry, as Bush campaign officials continually note, voted against the measure in the Senate.

The president did not squarely address one of the biggest controversies of the Iraq war - the failure thus far to find the weapons of mass destruction that Hussein allegedly possessed. He alluded to intelligence that he said convinced his administration, Congress and the United Nations Security Council that Iraq posed a threat, then said:

"I had a choice to make - either take the word of a madman or take such threats seriously and defend America. Faced with that choice, I will defend America every time."

Bush condemned as conscienceless murderers the perpetrators of the Madrid bombings and appealed to Europeans to remain firm in the face of such attacks.

"There's no safety for any nation in a world that lives at the mercy of gangsters and mass murderers," he said. "Eventually, there's no place to hide from the planted bombs - or the far worse weapons that terrorists seek. For the civilized world, there's only one path to safety."

An administration official said that comment was not aimed directly at Spain's incoming Socialist government, which is threatening to withdraw its small military contingent from Iraq.

Polish President Alexander Kwasniewski, until now a staunch U.S. ally on Iraq, also is raising the possibility of an early withdrawal and complaining about being "misled" about Iraq's weapons, according to news reports from Warsaw yesterday.

The administration official said Bush's comment was aimed at underscoring the general need to avoid giving terrorists any reason to believe that new attacks would produce a softening in policy.

Bush is expected to make the same point today when he marks the war anniversary with a speech at the White House.

Newsday is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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