Bush visiting U.S. troops as he heads home from Mideast

Thursday, June 5th 2003, 12:00 am

By: News On 6

DOHA, Qatar (AP) -- President Bush argued Thursday the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq was justified and pledged that "we'll reveal the truth" on Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction.

"We've made sure Iraq is not going to be used as an arsenal for terrorist groups," Bush said, his coat off and shirt sleeves rolled up as he spoke to a sea of tan camouflage-clad U.S. soldiers at the command center for the Iraq war.

Bush noted the recent discovery of what U.S. officials say are mobile biological weapons labs and said the search for banned arms could take a long time.

"We're going to look. We'll reveal the truth," Bush said. "But one thing is certain: no terrorist network will gain weapons of mass destruction from the Iraqi regime because the Iraqi regime is no more."

Bush's visit comes as questions continue to swirl around his primary justification for the conflict in Iraq -- that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction and was poised to use them.

Bush pointed to the laboratories in a recent interview with Polish television to say, "We found the weapons of mass destruction."

The president, fresh from a two-day mission aimed at bringing peace to the Middle East, said the Iraq war "sent along a clear message that our nation is strong and our nation is compassionate."

"America sent you on a mission to remove a grave threat and liberate an oppressed people and that missions has been accomplished," he told the more than 1,000 troops, who cheered every other sentence.

Bush spoke to troops in a warehouse at Camp As Sayliyah, the temperatures climbing despite the air conditioning. After his remarks, the president paused to shake his hands with troops. The troops held cameras and video recorders above their heads to get a picture of the president.

Earlier Thursday, Bush met privately with Gen. Tommy Franks, the commander of all U.S.-led forces in the Persian Gulf and with L. Paul Bremer, the new head of the occupation authority in Iraq, to discuss the progress of Iraqi reconstruction.

He also paid a courtesy call to the emir of Qatar, a country that has been a longtime U.S. ally.

"You have been a steadfast friend of the United States, and for that we are very grateful," Bush told Emir Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani.

Bush said Iraq is a better place now, cataloguing humanitarian works by U.S. troops.

The troops are trying to thwart a wave of crime that Bush blamed on Saddam, who he said emptied jail cells of "common criminals" just before the war and left his people hungry and desperate.

The criminals "haven't changed their habits or their ways," Bush said. "They like to rob, loot. ... "We'll find them. Day by day the United States and our coalition partners are making the streets safer for the Iraqi citizens."

Bush blamed Saddam for neglecting his country's infrastructure, without mentioning damage from the war. Building the country up will accelerate the emergence of a new government, he said.

"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 Hussein did not do for them," Bush said.

"I've been on the road for a while and I hope you didn't mind us stopping by," Bush said. "I'm happy to see you and so are the long-suffering people of Iraq."

U.S. and British forces have yet to find tangible evidence that Saddam had stocks of chemical and biological weapons ready to use.

The president's major ally in the war, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, is embroiled in the biggest controversy of his six years in power, accused of exaggerating the dangers posed by Iraq.

But Bush's approval ratings remain high in U.S. polls. And his visit here, his first to the region since combat ended, was akin to a victory lap after a seven-day trip to Europe and the Middle East.

Bush has blunted criticism of his role in the Iraq war by throwing his energy into drumming up support for an internationally drafted peace plan that would result in the creation of a Palestinian state by 2005.

He won support for the effort from Arab leaders on Tuesday, and was able to wring concessions on Wednesday from both the Israeli and Palestinian prime ministers.

"Great and hopeful change is coming to the Middle East," Bush said in Aqaba as he shared a platform with the prime ministers of Israel and the Palestinian Authority and the king of Jordan.

On the way from Aqaba to Qatar, Bush told reporters he was pleased with his initial successes on the Israeli-Palestinian front.

"It's progress," Bush said. "These first signs of peace happen when people make up their minds to work toward peace, and that's what you saw."

Still, he added, "I am the master of low expectations. We accomplished what I hoped we'd accomplish. We met expectations."

Qatar has been a close U.S. ally in the region since the 1990 Gulf War. During the latest war, the United States used Qatar as its command headquarters for the conflict.

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