WASHINGTON – President Bush said in a television interview Thursday that there is some evidence suggesting Saddam Hussein is either dead or "at the very minimum was severely wounded." Bush also said U.S. troops would remain in Iraq "as long as necessary."
Could that take as long as two years? Bush was asked by NBC Nightly News anchor Tom Brokaw. "Could -- or less," Bush said. "Who knows?"
"People say the United States should leave. And we want to leave as soon as we've accomplished our mission," Bush said.
On another subject, Bush accused North Korea of being "back to the old blackmail game" in saying that it had nuclear weapons and might test, export or use them.
The interview was conducted aboard Air Force One during a trip to Ohio in which the president promoted his tax-cut plan. It was his first extensive interview since the end of major combat in Iraq.
Bush was asked about intelligence on Saddam's purported whereabouts that led to a bombing raid on the first night of the war. "As the intelligence got richer, I got more confidence with the notion that Saddam would, in fact, be there," he said.
Some U.S. officials later suggested that Saddam may have survived that first bombing, if not later attempts that targeted him and his sons.
However, Bush said there's still a chance that the strike that first night -- the result of a last-minute change of U.S. war plans -- did the job.
"There will be a lot of speculation until the truth is known," he said. But he added that it might "explain why dams weren't blown up or oil fields weren't destroyed, even though we found them wired potentially to be blown up."
"There is some evidence that suggests he might be" dead, Bush told Brokaw.
"We would never make that declaration until we are more certain," he added. "But the person who helped direct the attacks believes that Saddam at the very minimum was severely wounded."
Bush was asked whether he believed neighboring Iran would heed U.S. warnings not to interfere in Iraq.
"We certainly hope that Iran will allow Iraq to develop into a stable and peaceful society," Bush said. "We have sent word to the Iranians that that's what we expect."
In any event, the United States has "no military plans" to move against either Iran or Syria, the president said.
-- Cautioned France, which opposed the war, not to use its position "within Europe to create alliances against the United States," Britain or other coalition partners. As for French President Jacques Chirac, "I doubt he'll be coming to the ranch any time soon," Bush said, referring to his ranch in Texas where he has invited other world leaders.
-- Said that looting and vandalism, particularly in hospitals and museums, was "the absolute worst part" of an otherwise successful military campaign. "It's like uncorking a bottle of frustration," Bush said.
-- Confided that he was "hesitant at first" to order the first-night attack on buildings where Saddam and family members were believed to be holed up in a bunker. "I was worried that ... the first images of the American attack would be death to young children."
-- Said he believed that hidden weapons of mass destruction would still be found, although some may have been destroyed or moved in advance out of the country. He conceded that "there's going to be skepticism" among people at home and abroad "until people find ... a weapons of mass destruction program."
-- Said he would invite Palestinian Prime Minister-designate Mahmoud Abbas to the White House "one of these days, yes." "I look forward to working with him," Bush said. He indicated that longtime Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat would not be invited to accompany him to such a session.
-- Poked fun at the Iraqi information minister, who gave outlandish briefings denying U.S. forces were in Baghdad when they were just blocks away. "It was one of the classics. It was just unbelievable what he was saying."
As to North Korea's latest disclosures, Bush said, "North Korea is making my case that we've got to come together" in talks aimed at curbing North Korea's nuclear program.
"One of our goals and objectives must be to strengthen the nonproliferation regime," he said. "The Chinese now for the first time are partners at the table. I look forward to hearing what the Chinese say about being rebuffed by the North Koreans."
"They, too, believe that peninsula ought to be weapons free," he said.