FORT HOOD, Texas – The lives of all Iraqis will be better now that former president Saddam Hussein is out of power, President Bush said Sunday, but he warned the Iraqi leader, if alive, to not "pop his head out" of whatever hole he may be hiding in.
"I would suggest he not pop his head up," Bush told reporters after meeting at Fort Hood in Texas with two helicopters pilots who were held as prisoners of war in Iraq.
Bush was asked for the latest update on the whereabouts of Saddam. The White House has maintained that even if he were still alive, Saddam and his regime are no longer in power and the Iraqi people shouldn't fear him any longer.
"Yes, Saddam Hussein is no longer in power. That's for certain. He was in power, and now he is not. And therefore, the Iraqi people's lives will be much better off," Bush said.
"The liberation of Iraq will make the world more peaceful."
The fate of Saddam is unknown after a U.S. bombing strike on a restaurant in Baghdad where Saddam was believed to be, along with his two sons and other regime officials, earlier this month. A previous bombing on March 19 is believed to have missed the dictator.
Bush visited the pilots and their families, saying he had "a good talk with them. Good, strong men."
One of the pilots, Chief Warrant Officer David S. Williams, said the meeting "was an absolute honor."
"We stand 100 percent behind whatever our president decides to do," added Chief Warrant Officer Ronald D. Young Jr. "We're honored to serve him. And this is definitely one of the highlights of my life, absolutely."
Bush said he wasn't worried that anti-U.S. demonstrations led by religious leaders in Iraq might put a damper on rebuilding efforts. He said it's just one more sign Iraq is on the road to democracy.
"Freedom is beautiful, and when people are free, they express their opinions. And, you know, they couldn't express their opinions before we came. Now they can," Bush said.
"I've always said democracy is going to be hard. It's not easy to go from being enslaved to being free. But it's going to happen, because the basic instincts of mankind is to be free. They want to be free."
Bush came to Fort Hood, the nation's largest military base, to attend Easter church services and then see the pilots. First Lady Laura Bush, and former President G.W. Bush and his wife, Barbara, also attended the meeting. Also in the group were the president's mother-in-law, Jenna Welch, and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice.
Bush attended services at the 4th Infantry Division Memorial Chapel. Joining him were Williams, 30, of Orlando, Fla., and Young, 26, Lithia Springs, Ga., and their families.
The Apache helicopter pilots were forced down in Iraq on March 24. They were rescued, with five other American POWs from the 507th Maintenance Unit, on April 13 in northern Iraq after Iraqi captors abandoned their posts as advancing American troops crushed the resistance.
The pilots, with the Army's 1st Cavalry Division, returned to Fort Hood late Saturday, just after the five other soldiers got back to Fort Bliss in Texas.
Some 42,000 troops are normally based at Fort Hood. But almost half the soldiers at the Army installation have been deployed to the Iraq region.
Bush is taking an Easter vacation at his 1,600-acre ranch outside the central Texas town of Crawford. He took a helicopter to the Army base, which is about 50 miles south of the ranch.
After the Easter break, White House aides say Bush will return to a heavy travel schedule to promote his domestic policies, primarily his proposed tax cuts that have caused partisan rifts, even within the Republican Party. His frequent traveling nearly came to a halt in the days leading up to Operation Iraqi Freedom.
During Congress' two-week Easter recess, many members of the Bush administration will fan out to various states to promote Bush's economic package.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.