Bush: ‘Bring on’ attackers of U.S. troops

7/2/03; WASHINGTON (AP) — President Bush said Wednesday that American troops under fire in Iraq aren’t about to pull out, and he challenged those tempted to attack U.S. forces, “Bring them on.”

“We’ll stay the course in Iraq,” Bush said. “We’re not leaving until we accomplish the task, and the task is going to be a free country run by the Iraqi people.” He and his aides offered no timetable for the withdrawal of American forces.

More than 65 U.S. troops have died in Iraq since Bush declared on May 1 that major combat had ended. Twenty-six were killed in combat, the rest in accidents.

Bush pledged to find and punish “anybody who wants to harm American troops,” and said the attacks would not weaken his resolve to restore peace and order in Iraq.

“There are some who feel like that the conditions are such that they can attack us there. My answer is bring them on,” Bush said. “We’ve got the force necessary to deal with the security situation.”

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Bush’s combative tone was not meant to invite attacks on Americans. “I think what the president was expressing there is his confidence in the men and women of the military to handle the military mission they still remain in the middle of,” Fleischer said.

But Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., called the president’s language “irresponsible and inciteful.”

“I am shaking my head in disbelief,” Lautenberg said. “When I served in the Army in Europe during World War II, I never heard any military commander — let alone the commander in chief — invite enemies to attack U.S. troops.”

Rep. Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., said, “I have a message for the president: enough of the phony, macho rhetoric.”

“We should be focused on a long-term security plan that reduces the danger to our military personnel,” said Gephardt, who is running for president. “We need a serious attempt to develop a postwar plan for Iraq, and not more shoot-from-the-hip one-liners.”

On Tuesday, assailants traveling in a vehicle in central Baghdad fired a rocket-propelled grenade at a U.S. military vehicle, wounding three soldiers. Another grenade slammed into a U.S. truck on a road south of Baghdad, injuring three soldiers, one of whom died at a field hospital overnight.

The president also gave a forceful defense of the Iraqi war. He rejected a question about whether there was a gap between the Iraqi weapons program reported by intelligence and administration officials before the war and the scant evidence found since.

“Saddam Hussein had a weapons program,” Bush said. “Remember, he used them — he used chemical weapons on his own people.”

Bush made no mention of the failure of U.S. teams to find evidence of weapons of mass destruction, but said, “We’re bringing some order to the country and we’re beginning to learn the truth.” Bush did not explicitly promise that weapons or evidence of a weapons program will be found, but he said, “It’s just a matter of time, a matter of time.”

Twenty-three% of Americans believe the United States has found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, down from 34% in May, according to the poll released Tuesday by the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland.

Fleischer put a new twist on the weapons issue. “I think the burden falls on those who think he didn’t have them to explain when he destroyed them and why, after he destroyed them, he didn’t tell anybody or show anybody,” Fleischer said.

Bush also expressed impatience with the criticism leveled at his administration in recent weeks.

“See, we’ve been there for, what — I mean, how many days?” Bush said. “Frankly, it wasn’t all that long ago that we started military operations. And we got rid of him, much faster than a lot of people thought.”

Bush fielded several questions on a wide array of topics in the Roosevelt Room, where he announced Randall Tobias as his choice to head a new program to battle AIDS in Africa and the Caribbean.

The president said he had spoken Wednesday morning to Russian President Vladimir Putin to thank him for help with confronting weapons programs in North Korea and Iran. Bush also talked by phone with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Jordan’s King Abdullah II and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon about progress toward peace in the Middle East.

“The best way to describe it is, we’re really happy with what we’ve seen so far,” Bush said. “But we’re realists in this administration. We understand that there’s been years of hatred and distrust, and we’ll continue to keep the process moving forward.”

Bush also spoke by phone with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who took over the presidency of the European Union on Tuesday.

Bush spoke about human suffering and unrest in Liberia, but he stopped short of saying whether his administration should send peacekeepers to the West African nation — an idea opposed by a U.S. military already committed to other world trouble spots.

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