- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 22, 2003

ASSOCIATED PRESS

President Bush countered wide-ranging questions about the U.S. mission in Iraq yesterday, offering a picture of steady progress in the quest to find banned weapons and rebuild the battered but unruly country.

“For the people of free Iraq, the road ahead holds great challenges,” the president said in his weekly radio address. “Yet at every turn, they will have friendship and support from the United States of America.”

The president’s broadly positive status report on the U.S. presence in Iraq came more than 10 weeks after the fall of President Saddam Hussein’s regime and three months since the first American jets bombarded Baghdad.

Saddam and his two sons, the top three on the U.S. list of most-wanted former Iraqi officials, have not been located, and suspicions are increasing within the administration that high-profile bombings aimed at killing the Iraqi leader were not successful. Abid Hamid Mahmud al-Tikriti, a top Saddam lieutenant captured last week, has told American interrogators, “There is every likelihood that Saddam is alive,” Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Sen. Pat Roberts, Kansas Republican, said yesterday.

Also, none of the weapons of mass destruction that Mr. Bush insisted Saddam had have been found. The lack of hard evidence has congressional committees examining whether the Bush administration manipulated prewar intelligence about Iraq’s weapons and Saddam’s ties to terrorists.

Though the president declared major combat to be over in Iraq more than seven weeks ago, American soldiers continue to die from sniper shootings and ambushes. Protests spring up in Iraq regularly. Crime is rampant, and Iraqis are frustrated about a lack of basic services: electricity, clean water, garbage pickup.

In his radio address, the president did not promise, as he and aides have done in the past, that banned weapons will be found.

Instead, he defended the administration’s original assertions about the weapons’ existence and the intelligence on which the assertions were based. Saddam refused to prove that he had destroyed what he had, Mr. Bush said. Documents and suspected weapons sites were looted and burned “in the regime’s final days,” he said.

“We are determined to discover the true extent of Saddam Hussein’s weapons programs, no matter how long it takes,” Mr. Bush said.

He said the United States is committed to establishing order and justice despite risks to American troops. He blamed pockets of Saddam loyalists, “along with their terrorist allies,” for deadly attacks on U.S. forces.

“First, we are working to make Iraq secure for its citizens and our military,” he said. “Second, we are working to improve the lives of the Iraqi people after three decades of tyranny and oppression.”

In Baghdad, he said, 28,000 American combat troops and military police are enforcing the law, making arrests and training Iraqis in an attempt to make the city safer.

Mr. Roberts, talking at a news conference in Topeka, Kan., said reports that Saddam may be alive are hampering reconstruction efforts by fostering fear of a brutal backlash from him and emboldening his remaining supporters to fight.

U.S. troops are following up on Mahmud’s information about Saddam in “a very aggressive effort” to evaluate the information, about which U.S. officials are skeptical, and to find the former dictator, Mr. Roberts said.

“If he is alive — and there’s still a lot of speculation — I think he will be found,” Mr. Roberts said.

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