- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 15, 2004

President Bush yesterday said the United States will not turn over Saddam Hussein to Iraq’s interim government without assurances that the former dictator will remain behind bars.

“We want to make sure that he doesn’t come back to power,” Mr. Bush said during a press conference with Afghan President Hamid Karzi in the White House Rose Garden.

“And so, therefore, it’s a legitimate question to ask of the interim government: How are you going to make sure he stays in jail? And that’s the question I’m asking.

“And when we get the right answer,” he added, “then we’ll all be satisfied.”

Although hesitant to give the new government responsibility for Saddam, Mr. Bush was eager to pass authority on radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who for months has been inciting insurgents to attack U.S. forces in Iraq. The Pentagon had said its mission was to “kill or capture” Sheik al-Sadr.

“The interim Iraqi government will deal with al-Sadr in the way they see fit,” Mr. Bush said. “They’re sovereign.

“When we say we transfer full sovereignty, we mean we transfer full sovereignty,” he added. “And they will deal with him appropriately.”

Sovereignty is set for June 30, when U.S. forces that liberated Iraq will formally end their occupation and turn over the country to Iraqis. Members of Iraq’s new government said they expect to take custody of Saddam shortly after the transfer, provided that security is adequate.

Saddam, who was captured in December by U.S. soldiers, is being held and interrogated at an undisclosed location. U.S. and Iraqi officials are negotiating terms of his transfer.

“Look, nobody wants Saddam to leave,” Mr. Bush said. “He’s a killer, he’s a thug, he needs to be brought to trial.

“We want to make sure the transfer to a sovereign government is done in a timely way and in a secure way,” he added. “That’s what we’re discussing with the government.”

Administration officials were reluctant to discuss specific negotiations between the United States and Iraq. One proposal is to grant technical authority over Saddam to the new Iraqi government, which then would ask U.S. forces to continue to hold him in a secure location until trial.

“I’m confident that when it’s all said and done, he will stay in jail,” Mr. Bush said.

As for ongoing violence in Iraq, Mr. Bush said it would not derail plans to democratize the nation.

“These aren’t easy tasks,” he said. “I mean, somehow there’s this expectation: Well, all this is supposed to have happened yesterday.”

Despite progress in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a strengthening U.S. economy, Mr. Bush has been unable to pull ahead of Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, the presumptive Democratic nominee in the presidential race. But he expressed confidence that his political standing will improve.

“We are 4 months from Election Day,” he said in response to a question from The Washington Times. “In other words, there’s a long time before the election.

“I’m just going to do my job,” he added. “My job is to say to the American people: Follow me, the world is going to be better. The world will be more free, the world will be more peaceful.”

Yesterday marked Mr. Bush’s third full press conference this month, a marked increase for a president who answers just two or three questions in most encounters with reporters.

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