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Bush Takes in Iraq From 31,000 Feet

The airborne victory lap is a coda to the president's tour of Europe and the Mideast.

June 06, 2003|Maura Reynolds | Times Staff Writer

DOHA, Qatar — President Bush flew over U.S.-occupied Iraq on Thursday, taking an airborne victory lap as he headed home after an ambitious and frenetic tour of Europe and the Middle East.

Passing above Iraq at 31,000 feet, staff pointed out landmarks including the international airport outside Baghdad, where U.S. troops fought their first major battle for the Iraqi capital.

The point of the hourlong aerial tour was "to show that Iraq is now free," said Sean McCormack, a White House spokesman.

Bush spent the morning making a morale-boosting visit to troops at U.S. Central Command headquarters near Doha, the Qatari capital, where he pledged to "reveal the truth" about Iraq's weapons programs.

Former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein "spent decades hiding tools of mass murder. He knew the inspectors were looking for them," Bush told the crowd of more than a thousand whooping GIs. "You know better than me he's got a big country in which to hide them.

"We're on the look. We'll reveal the truth," Bush said.

The visit to the U.S. forward command in Qatar and the tour of Iraqi airspace were a coda to an ambitious, weeklong diplomatic offensive in Europe and the Middle East aimed at remaking U.S. global partnerships in the wake of the Iraq war. In Europe, that meant mending frayed relations with old allies, and in the Middle East, it meant pushing hesitant leaders to take a chance on peace.

White House officials believe the trip has been a resounding success for Bush, allowing him to demonstrate to critics at home and abroad that he has a vision for the world and the will to achieve it.

The only sour notes -- other than the grueling schedule -- were the growing questions about the existence of Iraqi weapons programs, which have dogged U.S. officials including the president, especially in Europe.

In his speech, Bush briefly addressed the controversy, repeating that U.S. forces have discovered two mobile weapons labs "which were capable of producing biological agents."

"One thing is certain," Bush said, trying to put the increasingly awkward issue in a positive light: "No terrorist network will gain weapons of mass destruction from the Iraqi regime, because the Iraqi regime is no more."

In the buildup to the Iraq war, the administration offered rotating rationales for the use of force: the country's alleged programs to develop weapons of mass destruction, the brutality of the Hussein regime, Iraq's alleged support for terrorist networks, and the desire to make Iraq a bridgehead of democracy in the Middle East.

Although Bush used his diplomatic tour to smooth things over with European leaders, ordinary Europeans continue to see the multiple-choice explanations as weakening, not strengthening, the American case for war.

Bush assured the camouflage-clad troops that their work and sacrifice in the Iraqi operation were not in question.

"Because of you a great evil has been ended. Because of you, the dignity of a great nation is being restored," the president said. "You see, the world is now learning what many of you have seen," he continued. "They're learning about the mass graves, thousands of people just summarily executed. They're learning about the torture chambers."

The president started the day by breakfasting with the U.S. commander in Iraq, Army Gen. Tommy Franks, and the U.S. civilian administrator for Iraq, L. Paul Bremer III, who arrived from Baghdad to brief the president. He paid a visit to the emir of Qatar, who noted that Bush is the first sitting U.S. president to visit the oil-rich desert kingdom. Bush praised him for his "grand hospitality" and for being a "steadfast friend" of the United States.

In his address to the troops at Camp As Sayliyah, Bush acknowledged criticism that the United States has failed to quickly restore normal life in Iraq, which has eroded Iraqi goodwill in the weeks following the U.S. military campaign. But he blamed the disorder largely on the deposed Hussein regime.

"We are moving those Baathist officials that are trying to hang on to power," Bush said, doffing his jacket and rolling up his sleeves in the 100-degree desert heat. "There are still pockets of criminality. Remember, the former leader of Iraq emptied the jail cells of common criminals right before the action took place. And they haven't changed their habits and their ways."

Bush pledged to do better at keeping order as reconstruction gets underway.

"Day by day, the United States and our coalition partners are making the streets safer for the Iraqi citizens," Bush said. "We also understand that a more just political system will develop when people have food in their stomachs, and their lights work, and they can turn on a faucet and they can find some clean water -- things that Saddam did not do for them."

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