Union Tribune

March 27, 2003

President defends military leaders, meets Blair in Md.


MacDILL AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. Traveling outside Washington yesterday for the first time since combat in Iraq began, President Bush defended his military commanders from critics who say the invading force lacks sufficient punch.

Bush later flew to Camp David for a meeting with British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Delivering a pep talk in a cavernous hangar jammed with cheering troops and their families, Bush praised the gains of coalition units during the ground war's first six days and alluded only in general terms to the difficulties they have encountered so far.

"We will overcome every danger, and we will prevail," Bush declared.

Bush used his visit to the U.S. Central Command the nerve center of the Iraqi war to stiffen his indictment of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, saying the world now has a clearer view than ever of a regime that is "evil at its heart."

Bush's trip came as some analysts are raising concerns about the war plan. Some question whether the U.S. military has been caught off-guard by the level of resistance, while others contend the forces are short on armor and sacrificing manpower for speed.

Bush praised the invasion force's agility and mobility, noting that it has penetrated northward some 200 miles toward Baghdad in the past three days. He added that allied troops have seized hundreds of square miles of Iraqi territory to prevent the possible launch of Hussein's "hidden weapons of mass destruction."

"We have an effective plan of battle and the flexibility to meet every challenge," Bush said.

Bracing the nation for tough fighting ahead, Bush noted that Hussein's elite Republican Guard units "are now under direct and intense attack."

"Day by day, Saddam Hussein is losing his grip in Iraq," Bush said. "Day by day, the people of Iraq are closer to freedom."

Briefing reporters on Air Force One en route to this base in the Tampa area, White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said Bush would say that "our progress is ahead of schedule."

Bush chose to soften that note of optimism, saying instead, "Our military is making good progress in Iraq; yet this war is far from over."

Later a senior administration official said the language change was a deliberate attempt to dampen any unrealistic public expectations of a quick and relatively bloodless victory.

"We cannot predict the final day of the Iraqi regime," Bush said. "But I can assure you, and I assure the long-suffering people of Iraq, there will be a day of reckoning for the Iraqi regime, and that day is drawing near."

Bush suggested that Hussein's regime is committing war crimes.

"In the ranks of that regime are men whose idea of courage is to brutalize unarmed prisoners. They wage attacks while posing as civilians. They use real civilians as human shields. They pretend to surrender, then fire upon those who show them mercy."

By contrast, he said, "We are treating Iraqi prisoners of war according to the highest standards of law and decency."

Afterward, Bush received an intelligence briefing in the base's command center.

Bush began two days of meetings with Blair at Camp David yesterday. They were to dine there last night along with Bush's wife, Laura, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and Chief of Staff Andrew Card.

One item high on Blair's agenda is persuading the administration to agree to a major role for the United Nations in reconstructing post-war Iraq. Blair has told reporters that Bush agrees with that objective.

However, Vice President Dick Cheney and other senior administration officials are known to be skeptical that the United Nations should have a role in rebuilding Iraq.