- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 28, 2003

President Bush, who has long been accused by critics of waging war for oil in Iraq, yesterday said he will not give in to demands by those same critics to now take that oil as payment for reconstruction.

“That’s exactly the point I made to the members of Congress who have come here to the White House to talk about loans or grants,” Mr. Bush said in response to a question from The Washington Times in a Rose Garden press conference.

“Let’s don’t burden Iraq with loans,” he said. “The only thing they’ll be able to repay their loans with is the oil.”

The president declined to say whether his critics were being hypocritical for flip-flopping on whether he should take Iraq’s oil.

A decision on the question of loans is expected today from House and Senate negotiators who are hammering out a final version of the $87 billion spending bill. Loan proponents yesterday seemed resigned to failure as Republican leaders have garnered the votes to defeat their plan.

The first formal meeting of the conference committee broke up yesterday after Democratic negotiators demanded more time to review the provisions in the compromise bill leaders are asking be approved.

“We shouldn’t deal with it as if it’s an afterthought to the D.C. appropriations bill,” said Rep. David R. Obey of Wisconsin, the top House Democrat on the conference.

Republicans agreed to postpone the conference a day, but Sen. Ted Stevens, Alaska Republican and chairman of the committee, said he wants to move quickly.

“We have men and women in Iraq who need this money,” he said.

Although the president’s news conference was dominated by questions about Iraq, Mr. Bush touched on several other issues, including abortion. He said that while he plans to sign the recently passed congressional ban on partial-birth abortion, he still believes America is not ready for a total ban on all abortions.

“I don’t think the culture has changed to the extent that the American people or the Congress would totally ban abortions,” Mr. Bush said, echoing a statement he made during the 2000 presidential campaign.

The president also said he supported the decision of his brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, to order the resumption of food for a brain-damaged woman whose husband had obtained court permission to remove her feeding tube.

During the 48-minute news conference, Mr. Bush faced sharp questions from reporters, including one who called on him to “acknowledge now that you were premature” in declaring an end to major combat operations in Iraq on May 1. The reporter, NBC’s Norah O’Donnell, reminded him that he made the declaration after landing on an aircraft carrier festooned with a banner reading, “mission accomplished.”

“The ‘mission accomplished’ sign, of course, was put up by the members of the USS Abraham Lincoln, saying that their mission was accomplished,” Mr. Bush said.

“I know it was attributed somehow to some ingenious advance man from my staff,” he added. “They weren’t that ingenious, by the way.”

Turning serious, the president launched into a vigorous defense of his policy on postwar Iraq.

“Norah, I think you ought to look at my speech,” he said of the May 1 address. “I said: Iraq is a dangerous place and we’ve still got hard work to do, there’s still more to be done. And we had just come off a very successful military operation. I was there to thank the troops.”

But another reporter, Bill Plante of CBS, said: “There are people out there who don’t believe that the administration is leveling with them about the difficulty and scope of the problem in Iraq.”

Mr. Bush replied: “I can’t put it any more plainly: Iraq is a dangerous place. That’s leveling.”

That assertion was immediately disputed by Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle.

“There is a growing credibility gap between what is said and what is being done,” said the South Dakota Democrat, who ridiculed the president’s claims of progress in Iraq. “If this is progress, I don’t know how much more progress we can take.”

Hours after the news conference, Mr. Bush huddled with advisers to discuss new tactical responses to recent attacks in Iraq, including additional security checkpoints in Iraq.

“One of the hallmarks of this operation in Iraq, as well as Afghanistan, was the flexibility we’ve given our commanders,” he said. “The strategy remains the same.”

Stephen Dinan contributed to this report.

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