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President Rallies Marines but Warns of Risks in Iraq

Speaking to thousands of troops and their families at a San Diego base, he thanks them for their 'tremendous sacrifices for America.'

August 15, 2003|Edwin Chen | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — President Bush told thousands of Marines on Thursday that the war on terrorism was "slowly but surely" being won, and he cited as proof the fresh capture of a senior Al Qaeda operative.

But in an otherwise upbeat progress report, Bush also warned of the continuing dangers that lurk in "parts of Iraq."

The president sounded that cautionary note just 2 1/2 months after his last visit here, when he proclaimed an end to major combat in Iraq after landing on an aircraft carrier offshore.

An estimated 10,000 or more Marines and their families turned out Thursday to hear the president, standing on a sun-scorched tarmac at the Marine Corps Air Station Miramar.

About 3,000 troops based at Miramar are serving in Iraq and about 4,000 have returned. In all, more than 70,000 troops based in Southern California were deployed to Iraq.

In his remarks, Bush spoke of the nation's gratitude to the U.S. armed forces.

"Our country depends on you to protect our freedom. And every day, you depend on your families," he said. "This has been a challenging time for military families. I know that.... Military families make tremendous sacrifices for America, and our nation is grateful for your service to our country."

Afterward, Bush ate lunch with the Marines and then headed to downtown San Diego to address supporters at a fund-raiser for his reelection campaign.

Bush's arrival in San Diego on Thursday was far less dramatic than his appearance on the Abraham Lincoln on May 1, when he landed aboard the carrier in a jet and emerged wearing a flight suit; after a quick change of attire, he addressed the nation from the vessel's deck.

But plenty of stagecraft surrounded Bush's appearance Thursday as well. Air Force One landed right on time and taxied to a stop near a cordon of fighter jets lining the tarmac for about 500 feet on either side.

From Air Force One, Bush strode between the AV-8B Harrier IIs and F/A-18 Hornets, wearing a lightweight, military flight jacket despite the warm temperatures.

In his remarks, the president also commented on the apprehension of Riduan Isamuddin, also known as Hambali.

"In the last few days, we captured a major terrorist named Hambali. He's a known killer. He was a close associate of Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed," Bush said.

"Hambali was one of the world's most lethal terrorists, who is suspected of planning major terrorist operations, including that which occurred in Bali, Indonesia, and other recent attacks."

As the crowd cheered, the president added that Hambali "is no longer a problem to those of us who love freedom, and neither are nearly two-thirds of known senior Al Qaeda leaders, operational managers and key facilitators, who have been captured or have been killed.

"No, we're making progress. Slowly but surely, we're doing our duty to our fellow citizens."

Then he warned:

"Al Qaeda's still active, and they're still recruiting, and they're still a threat. The leaders and foot soldiers continue to plot against the American people."

At the fund-raiser Thursday evening, Bush thanked about 500 supporters at the city's convention center, and told them: "You are laying the groundwork for what will be a great nationwide victory in November of '04."

The president also made a joking reference to the California recall controversy as he thanked Brad Freeman, his California finance chairman, who introduced him. "He spoke so well I thought he was going to announce for governor," Bush quipped, prompting a wave of laughter.

In his remarks, the president broke no new ground, as he delivered his stump fund-raising speech. He mentioned his domestic initiatives, from medical liability reform to prescription drug coverage to Medicare.

But above all, Bush focused on the war on terrorism and on his determination to revive the economy, vowing that he will not rest until the threat of terrorism is eradicated and until every job seeker can find work.

After spending the night at a hotel in Newport Beach, Bush is scheduled today to visit the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area in Thousand Oaks, where he will speak about conservation and participate briefly in a trail restoration project.

Before returning to his ranch near Crawford, Texas, Bush will attend another fund-raiser, a luncheon in Irvine, which like the San Diego fund-raiser is expected to raise $1 million.

The president is in the middle of his annual, monthlong working vacation, using his ranch as a base of operations.

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