WASHINGTON – "Bring them on!"
That's the message President Bush gave to resistance fighters in Iraq who have launched violent attacks on American troops seeking to bring stability in Iraq.
Bush said those who engage in such attacks — dozens have killed 26 U.S. soldiers since May 1 — don't understand what U.S.-led forces are doing in their country.
"Anybody who wants to harm American troops will be found and brought to justice," Bush said at an impromptu press conference in the Roosevelt Room (search) of the White House.
"There are some who feel like if they attack us, we may decide to leave prematurely. They don't understand what they're talking about if that's the case."
Two attacks on U.S. troops yesterday in and near Baghdad (search) injured five U.S. soldiers and another who died overnight from his injuries. Both attacks involved grenades being launched at U.S. military vehicles.
"There are some who feel like that, you know, the conditions are such that they can attack us there. My answer is bring them on," Bush said. "We got the force necessary to deal with the security situation."
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Bush's tone was not meant to provoke attacks on U.S. forces. "I think what the president was expressing there is his confidence in the men and women of the military to handle the military mission they still remain in the middle of," Fleischer said.
But Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., called the president's words "irresponsible and inciteful."
"I am shaking my head in disbelief," Lautenberg said. "When I served in the Army in Europe during World War II, I never heard any military commander -- let alone the commander in chief -- invite enemies to attack U.S. troops."
Bush said those who try to sabotage the U.S. effort by undermining Iraq's infrastructure — tearing down power lines for instance — do more harm to themselves than to the United States.
"Those who blow up the electricity lines really aren't hurting America, they're hurting the Iraq citizens," Bush said. "Their own fellow citizens are being hurt. But we will deal with them harshly as well."
So far, Great Britain, Poland and Ukraine already have forces stationed in the country, working along U.S. soldiers attempting to restore peace following the ouster of Saddam Hussein (search). Bush said he would welcome assistance from other countries.
"Anybody who wants to help, we'll welcome," Bush said. "But we got plenty tough force there right now to make sure the situation is secure."
On Tuesday, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said that the United States has asked 70 countries to assist in peace efforts and has been in various stages of talks with about half of them on how they can assist Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Bush did not discuss the search for weapons of mass destruction or the failure of U.S.-led teams to find them. But he defended the U.S.-led war against Saddam's regime. He also rejected the notion that intelligence analysts manipulated data on the threat presented by Saddam.
"Saddam Hussein had a weapons program," Bush said. "Remember he used them — he used chemical weapons on his own people."
Adding that the United States is just beginning to learn the truth now that order is being restored, he said, "It's just a matter of time, a matter of time" before weapons are located.
He also expressed impatience with the criticism leveled at his administration in recent weeks.
"See, we've been there for, what — I mean, how many days" Bush said. "Eighty, 90? Frankly, it wasn't all that long ago that we started military operations. And we got rid of him; much faster than a lot of people thought."
And Bush compared the Iraqi operation to the humanitarian effort he is undertaking to combat AIDS in Africa and the Caribbean.
"It's been a great honor to lead our nation in not only the cause of humanitarian relief through an AIDS initiative, but also to lead our nation to free people from the clutches of what history will show was an incredibly barbaric regime," Bush said.
The president had not scheduled any public events for Wednesday, but when he came to the Roosevelt Room to announce Randall Tobias' nomination to lead the AIDS initiative, he answered questions on several topics, a departure from his usual practice and one he acknowledged.
"Any other questions? I'm willing to exhaust questions, today. I feel like I'm on a roll," he said.
Among the topics Bush responded to was the unrest in Liberia, plagued last week by fighting by rebel forces seeking the ouster of Liberian president Charles Taylor, who had agreed to cede power and leave the country, but has so far not done so.
Bush said Secretary of State Colin Powell is working closely with United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan on how to keep peace in Liberia, and praised a cease-fire put into place. But Bush said, only one solution will do.
"One thing has to happen: Mr. Taylor needs to leave the country. ... In order for there to be peace and stability in Liberia, Charles Taylor needs to leave now," he said.
Bush did not say whether U.S. troops would go to the West African nation as peacekeepers. However, shortly after his press conference, Pentagon officials told Fox News that the president has given them the green light to send U.S. forces, likely Marines currently on stand-by in Spain, to Liberia. The number of troops has not yet been determined.
Bush also said he spoke Wednesday morning with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who called to wish him a happy 57th birthday. The president's actual birthday is July 6.
Bush said he thanked Putin for help with confronting weapons programs in North Korea and Iran.
Bush also said he had talked by phone with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordan's King Abdullah II about progress toward peace in the Middle East.
"The best way to describe it is, we're really happy with what we've seen so far," Bush said. "But we're realists in this administration. We understand that there's been years of hatred and distrust, and we'll continue to keep the process moving forward."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.