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Bush Airs Thoughts on End of Gulf War

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Former President George Bush, from the distance of five years, says that the U.S.-led coalition that defeated Iraq in the Persian Gulf War “could have done more” to weaken Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and his military.

But Bush continues to insist that targeting Hussein would have been wrong and that the war was brought to an end at the proper moment.

Bush made his comments in an unusual pair of television interviews. One, kept secret until now, took place at Camp David 10 days after the ground war ended in 1991 with Hussein still firmly in control of Iraq and with Bush’s approval ratings above 90%. The second took place last month in Houston. The sessions with British interviewer David Frost will be broadcast beginning today on PBS stations.

The former president’s comments on the conclusion of the war go to the heart of an ongoing debate over whether U.S. forces should have pursued the Iraqi Republican Guard to Baghdad as the elite troops retreated from a liberated Kuwait, and whether a harsher price should have been exacted from the defeated army.

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“I think maybe in retrospect we could have done more,” Bush said in the more recent interview.

But as for continuing the fighting, Bush said, “I know there’s a lot of revisionists and smart-alecks sitting out there that didn’t have to make the decision about exposing somebody’s kid to another day of danger.”

The 100-hour ground war, which followed six weeks of air attacks on Iraqi positions in Kuwait, ended after Bush consulted with--and gained the approval of--his top military commanders: Gen. Colin L. Powell, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, the senior U.S. commander directing the massive force assembled in Saudi Arabia after Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990.

With Hussein’s army retreating up what had become known as the “highway of death,” Bush called a halt to the pursuit. But the retreat left the Iraqi president with sufficient forces to put down rebellions by Kurds in the north and Shiites in the south and to remain firmly entrenched in Baghdad, despite a punishing economic embargo imposed by the United Nations.

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“Whether we could have had as a sine qua non Saddam showing up in that tent and handing over his sword or having a ceremony which would visibly increase his personal humiliation, I don’t know,” Bush said.

Suppose the Iraqi leader had refused and the United States had pursued him?

Then, Bush said, “there would we be, downtown Baghdad, an occupying--America occupying an Arab land, searching for this brutal dictator who had the best security in the world, involved in an urban guerrilla war.”

Conceding that “there’s room for some ex post facto criticism,” Bush said that the United States could have demanded that an official one level below Hussein show up for a surrender ceremony to demonstrate that “they were throwing in the towel.” Also, he said, the United States could have required greater restrictions on the flights of Iraqi military helicopters.

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As for Hussein’s continued hold over Iraq, Bush said, “We all, the world assumed . . . that Saddam could not survive a humiliating defeat.

“I miscalculated,” he said.

To the suggestion that he would have liked a “clean” end to the war, Bush, a former Navy pilot who was shot down over the Pacific during World War II, said the Gulf War’s conclusion was “clean in terms of accomplishing our mission--end the aggression.”

But, recalling the end of World War II, when Japan laid down its sword, Bush said, “The ending wasn’t quite as clean as it might have been if Saddam Hussein had . . . laid down his [sword] and maybe left office.”

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Bush, who has kept a low public profile since leaving the White House on Jan. 20, 1993, covered a wide range of issues in the interviews, all related to the war.

He said that if Hussein had developed a nuclear weapon and used it during the war, “we’d do whatever we had to, to respond in kind.”

But he said that use of nuclear weapons “was not something that we really contemplated at all.”

Bush said he “lived in fear” that Hussein would invade Saudi Arabia before the U.S.-assembled force took shape there. He was also worried that Hussein, just before the war began, would pull all his units out of Kuwait but would leave them just across the border in Iraq.

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“We would have been in a terrible bind, and so would our coalition partners, because we would have had to keep a lot of force there. We would have lost the backing of public opinion and certainly of the United States Congress in those days,” he said. “That would have been the worst of all worlds.”

Asked whether he thought Hussein is “partially mad,” Bush replied: “Wacko. . . ? I’d have to stop short of saying that he’s certifiably nuts.”

The former president also made it clear that Washington went to great lengths to keep Israel from retaliating for Iraqi Scud missile attacks, fearing that an attack by the Jewish state on Iraq would have chased Arab nations out of the anti-Iraq coalition.

“All hell would have broken loose,” he said.

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In the end, though, it was not the diplomatic pressure that kept Israel out of the war. Rather, Bush said, he denied Israel the military codes it needed to avoid exposure to friendly fire if it flew over Jordan or Saudi Arabia to attack Iraq.

“They did not like that,” Bush said. “And I know it was in the best interest of Israel’s security . . . and . . . coalition solidarity.”


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