President Bush expressed confidence Saturday that it’s just “a matter of time” until U.S. forces locate hidden arsenals of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons in Iraq.
“Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction,” Bush said during a news conference at his Texas ranch with Australian Prime Minister John Howard. “We’ve also got to recognize that he spent 14 years hiding weapons of mass destruction. I mean, he spent an entire decade making sure that inspectors would never find them.”
Bush described Iraq as a large territory “the size of the state of California .... It’s got tunnels, caves, all kinds of complexes. We’ll find them. And it’s just going to be a matter of time to do so.”
Howard and his wife spent the night at the ranch, a treat reserved for the president’s most valuable allies. Despite vehement opposition in Australia, Howard was a staunch supporter of the war in Iraq and sent 2,000 troops to assist the U.S.-led operation. Australia also sent troops to the Afghanistan conflict.
Howard praised Bush’s leadership in organizing the war against Iraq.
“I think what was achieved in Iraq was quite extraordinary from the military point of view,” he said. “I think the military textbooks will be replete with the experiences of Operation Iraqi Freedom for many years to come. And the leadership of the United States, with the support of its coalition partners ... I think has sent a very important message not only to the region, but also to the rest of the world.”
Bush recalled that Howard paid a visit to Washington the day before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and within days pledged Australia’s assistance under a mutual defense treaty.
“Australia came to America’s aid in our time of need, and we won’t forget that,” Bush said.
The president said that like the United States, Australia is committed to fighting terror because it suffered during the Bali bombings, which killed 202 people, most of them Australian tourists.
“We won’t tire in our attempts to fight terror,” the president said. “Nothing will deter us. We understand the effects of terror. We also are committed to a world that is more peaceful and more free.”
Bush said 18 of 55 senior Iraqi government officials are now in custody, including former Deputy Prime Minister Tarik Aziz, who he said has not been cooperating with U.S. investigators.
“He didn’t know how to tell the truth when he was in office,” Bush said. “He doesn’t know [how] to tell the truth ... as a captive.”
Bush said it is not necessarily the senior leaders -- depicted on a deck of playing cards distributed to U.S. forces in Iraq -- who hold the key to unlocking the truth about Hussein’s regime.
“I don’t know whether the aces will talk. I don’t know whether the kings will talk. But many Iraqi citizens will talk,” he said. “And the more we learn, the more the world will find out about the true nature of the Iraqi regime.”
The prime minister’s visit to Texas was casual, beginning Friday with a ride aboard Air Force One from Santa Clara, Calif., and followed by a dinner at the ranch featuring local cuisine: beef tenderloin, green chili cheese grits souffle and grilled okra.
On Saturday, the two leaders started the day with a brisk walk around the ranch that left the president and his Scottish terrier, Barney, in a pant.
The prime minister “walks a good clip,” Bush said. “I was breathing hard, and Barney was breathing harder. We had trouble keeping up with him.”
The two also held more formal talks, discussing North Korea, a possible U.S.-Australian free trade agreement and the prospects for Mideast peace.
On Monday, the president will travel to Little Rock, Ark., to deliver a speech on the economy before returning to Washington.