- The Washington Times - Monday, March 24, 2003

President Bush yesterday vowed that Iraqis who execute American prisoners of war "will be treated as war criminals" and warned the public that "this is just the beginning of a tough fight."
Mr. Bush said he did not know about the executions when he arrived at the White House at 1 p.m. after spending the weekend at Camp David. But after being informed by reporters on the South Lawn, the president promised retribution.
"I was told early this morning that perhaps our troops were captured," he said after stepping off Marine One. "The POWs I expect to be treated humanely, just like we're treating the prisoners that we have captured humanely.
"If not, the people who mistreat the prisoners will be treated as war criminals," he added.
Asked about the executions on MSNBC later in the day, Mohammed Aldouri, Iraq's ambassador to the United Nations, shrugged: "A war's a war."
Mr. Bush, when asked if there was any chance of getting the captured U.S. soldiers back, snapped: "Of course." He also pointed out the discrepancy between U.S. and Iraqi treatment of prisoners.
"I think it's an interesting contrast that a lot of their soldiers welcome American troops," Mr. Bush said. "They're surrendering gleefully and happily, and they'll be treated well."
Answering reporters' questions for the first time since the war began, the president sounded cautiously optimistic about what he called a "massive ground assault" against Iraq.
"Saddam Hussein is losing control of his country," he said.
"It's important for the American people to realize that this war has just begun," he added. "It may seem like a long time because of all the action on TV, but in terms of the overall strategy, we're just in the beginning phases."
On a day when his generals acknowledged military setbacks in the theater, Mr. Bush added: "It is evident that it's going to take a while to achieve our objective. But we're on course. We're determined. And we're making good progress."
Mr. Bush also warned Turkish troops against creating a pretext to cross into northern Iraq, where they are resented by Kurds and could imperil any post-Saddam peace.
"We have got more troops up north, and we're making it very clear to the Turks that we expect them not to come into northern Iraq," he said. "We're in constant touch with the Turkish military, as well as Turkish politicians. They know our policy, and it's a firm policy."
He added: "And they know we're working with the Kurds to make sure there's not an incident that would cause there to be an excuse to go into northern Iraq."
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced late yesterday that Washington and Ankara had made "military arrangements [for] a limited belt along the border aimed at stopping a possible influx of refugees … and prevent certain threats to our security."
Those threats, according to Turkey, include one scenario in which Iraqi Kurds might declare independence after Saddam is ousted, emboldening Turkish Kurds to renew their own efforts to secede. The United States opposes the redrawing of international borders to accommodate the creation of a Kurdistan state.
Mr. Bush touted military successes in southern Iraq, where only a small number of oil wells were set ablaze by retreating Iraqi forces. He praised Gen. Tommy Franks, the ground commander of the war, for preventing more widespread fires.
"There was a lot of speculation about whether or not coalition forces would be able to get to the southern oil fields in time, so that Saddam Hussein wouldn't destroy them," the president said.
"Tommy Franks put a plan in place that moved on those oil fields quickly," he said. "And at least in the south, they are secure. And that is positive news for all of us."
Mr. Bush pointed out that "most of the south is now in coalition hands," although he acknowledged "there's pockets of resistance in a place like Basra."
He added: "In the west we're making great progress. The area of the launch sites for the Scuds, while certainly not 100 percent secure, but we've made good progress."
The president made clear that Saddam, if he survived a missile strike on Wednesday, has missed his last chance at fleeing Iraq.
Mr. Bush also announced that food and medicine soon will be distributed to impoverished Iraqis.
"Massive amounts of humanitarian aid should begin moving within the next 36 hours," he said. "And that's going to be very positive news for a lot of people who've suffered a long time under Saddam Hussein."

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