President Bush, trying to transform a six-week war into a permanent peace, said Friday that “conditions are now better than ever” to settle deep and longstanding differences in the Middle East. “I want to move fast,” he said.
“I will work very hard for peace, just as hard as I have in the prosecution of the war,” Bush said at a news conference two days after declaring a conditional cease-fire in the mostly one-sided conflict with Iraq.
Secretary of State James A. Baker will fly to the Middle East this week for talks that Bush said “will advance planning for the war’s aftermath,” including such issues as the fate of the Palestinians, the future of Lebanon and Iraq’s willingness to normalize relations with the rest of the world.
Bush will go before a joint session of Congress next Wednesday night to report on the war.
The President returned several times to the problem posed by Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, who he said used vast revenues from oil sales to build a massive army when he should have been helping civilians.
“We are not targeting Saddam and we have no claim on Iraqi territory,” Bush said.
But he repeated his call for the Iraqi people to overthrow Hussein and bring Iraq “back to the family of peace-loving nations.”
“I’ve already said that the Iraqi people should put him aside and that would facilitate the solution of all these problems.”
Bush said Algeria had denied a report that Hussein was seeking asylum there. He refused to name Hussein as the target of an international manhunt but said, “Nobody can be absolved from the responsibilities under international law on the war crimes aspects” of Iraq’s conduct.
The Pentagon said U.S. warplanes continue to fly over Iraq. American pilots would seek instructions from headquarters if they believe Hussein is trying to flee on a departing plane, Lt. Gen. Thomas Kelly said.
However, he said, “We have airplanes flying over Baghdad not because of Saddam Hussein but because we want to let the people there know we have the capability to reinitiate combat should that become necessary.”
Bush expressed pride that the American people have supported the troops in the Gulf: “I sense there’s something noble and majestic about patriotism in this country now. It’s proper.”
After seven months of tension in the showdown with Hussein, Bush’s mood was visibly brighter. He said that a sense of euphoria was sweeping the nation but that his own feelings were tempered by Iraq’s holding of prisoners of war and Hussein’s grip on power.
Bush said the euphoria in the country was largely coming from “thousands, hundreds of thousands of families and friends that said, ‘My kids are going to be safe.’ ”
“To be very honest with you, I haven’t yet felt this wonderful euphoric feeling that many of the American people feel. I’m beginning to. I feel much better about it today than I did yesterday,” Bush said.
“I’ll get there, but I just need . . . a little more time to sort out in my mind how I can say to the American people it’s over finally, the last ‘t’ is crossed, the last ‘i’ is dotted.
“I’m not gloomy about it. I’m elated. But I just want to finish my part of the job. . . . I still have a little bit of an unfinished agenda.”
Bush said that World War II, in which he fought as a Navy pilot, had a definitive end, but that in the Gulf, “we still have Saddam Hussein there, the man that wreaked this havoc upon his neighbors. We have our prisoners still held. We have people unaccounted for.”
It’s not the first time that Bush has been solemn at a time when those around him have been jubilant.
When the Berlin Wall was torn down in late 1989, Bush’s first reaction was so low-key and undemonstrative that reporters asked him if something was wrong. He said there wasn’t.
Bush has told interviewers that he sometimes has trouble expressing emotion, particularly at momentous times--perhaps a legacy of his conservative New England upbringing.
He said his biggest concern is for the nine Americans known to be prisoners of war. Most are downed fighter pilots. At one point, Hussein had threatened to use them as human shields against allied attack.
Earlier in the day, he had told a meeting of state legislators that the Gulf War had set aside the painful feelings left over from the divisive Vietnam War.
“It’s a proud day for America and, by God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all,” he said to a burst of cheers and applause.
In his news conference, Bush said that American troops in the Gulf--537,000 strong--will begin coming home soon, but he did not say when or set a deadline to complete the withdrawal. Elsewhere, Defense Secretary Dick Cheney said the pullout would begin “within the next couple of weeks.”
Bush also announced that Iraqi and allied military commanders would conduct a border meeting Saturday to discuss terms for a permanent cease-fire and the release of POWs. Hours later, however, the Pentagon announced that the meeting had been delayed at least 24 hours at Iraq’s request.
The President said of the prospect of Iraq’s turning over prisoners: “They know that they must comply, and I believe they will comply. And put it this way: They better comply.”
The Pentagon lists nine Americans as prisoners and 45 more as missing in action.
The allied side will be led by Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, the allied commander, joined by the Saudi prince who commanded Saudi and joint Arab forces, Lt. Gen. Khalid bin Sultan.
Turning to diplomacy, Bush said the three key Middle East matters to be resolved concern the Palestinians, Lebanon, and postwar Iraq.
“What I really believe is that the conditions are now better than ever,” Bush said, adding that the British, French and other allies want to move forward. “We want to do it; it is in the interest of every country there; it’s in the interest of the Arab countries; it’s in the interest of Israel; it’s in the interest of the Palestinian people.
“So I sense a feeling (of) look, the time is right, let’s get something done.”
Kuwait’s ambassador to the United States, Saud al Nasir al Sabah, said that his country wanted the Arab-Israeli dispute resolved “sooner rather than later” and that a necessary first step would be for the Palestinians to find new leadership.
“The present leadership of the Palestinians does not really represent a very comfortable kind of atmosphere for any resolution of this,” the ambassador said. PLO leader Yasser Arafat cast his lot with Iraq during the Gulf War.
Bush said he does not expect U.S. forces to remain permanently in the Middle East in large numbers. “I want them back,” he said, indicating he would prefer that peacekeeping duties be turned over to Arab or United Nations forces.
He also said he supports holding individual Iraqis responsible for the atrocities committed during their occupation of Kuwait. However, Bush said that would be difficult because they have fled Kuwait.
Bush said the United States might help Iraq with humanitarian aid, but he said resolutely, “I don’t want to see one single dime” of American money used for rebuilding war-shattered Iraq. He said it is an oil-rich nation and should use its money for reconstruction and reparation expenses rather than its military.
Bush pledged to deal with the Soviet Union “with mutual respect” as he conducts postwar diplomacy.
“They have some good ideas,” he said, adding that he never resented President Mikhail S. Gorbachev’s efforts to head off hostilities. He said the Soviets “will be important players” in the Middle East.
Noting a strong spirit of cooperation between the United States and the Soviet Union, Bush said the newly invigorated United Nations would work on “political aspects of ending the war” while the generals ironed out the military details.