WASHINGTON – President Bush said Wednesday that he doesn't know when Saddam Hussein (search) will be captured, but that the deposed Iraqi dictator won't escape U.S. forces tracking him down.
"I don't know how close we are to getting Saddam Hussein, closer than we were yesterday, I guess, all I can say is we're on the hunt," Bush said in a Rose Garden (search) press conference, his ninth solo news conference since becoming president.
Bush said he expects coalition forces will get more Iraqi cooperation now that Saddam's sons and other regime leaders are dead or in U.S. custody.
"Our coalition forces are taking the fight to the enemy in an unrelenting campaign that is bringing daily results. Saddam Hussein's sons did not escape the raids and neither will other members of that despicable regime," Bush said.
Bush said the cooperation from Iraqis should lead to the "search for the truth" — a reference to the hunt for alleged weapons of mass destruction.
With the deaths of Uday and Qusay Hussein (search), Bush said a free Iraq is moving closer to reality but will take time, as did the forming of democracy in the United States.
"I never expected Thomas Jefferson to emerge in Iraq in 90 days time," the president said.
Bush Takes Responsibility for Intelligence Flap
Bush also said that he takes personal responsibility for a 16-word error in his State of the Union (search) address, which used information that has now been faulted for being based on bad intelligence. In the address, Bush said British intelligence had determined Iraq had sought uranium from Africa. While that was true in previous decades, the latest intelligence appeared to come from forged documents. The British still stand by the intelligence, but the uproar put Bush's national security advisers in hot water.
Deputy National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley acknowledged that he had been warned off the information months before the address, but said that he had forgotten the memos and phone call telling him not to include it. Critics say the credibility of Bush's National Security Adviser, Condoleezza Rice, has come into question.
But Bush said Wednesday that he backs Rice 100 percent.
"Dr. Condoleezza Rice (search) is an honest, fabulous person and America is lucky to have her service. Period," he said.
On the Hunt for Al Qaeda
In the 53-minute press conference, Bush addressed issues concerning many nations around the globe — from North Korea to Israel and Iran — as well as the terrorist Al Qaeda (search) network, which is said to be plotting new attacks using commercial airlines.
Bush said many key operatives of Al Qaeda have been captured or killed, and the United States is learning more and more information from the growing list of detainees.
"I am confident we will thwart the attempts," Bush said, adding again, "We've got better intelligence-gathering, better intelligence-sharing and we're on the hunt."
Bush Explains Why He Won't Declassify Parts of 9/11 Report
The president also restated why he refused to declassify 28 pages of the Joint Intelligence Committee report on Sept. 11, 2001, released last week.
The Saudi Foreign Minister met with Bush Tuesday to protest keeping the 28 pages blacked-out, saying it allows some corners in Washington to cast unfair aspersions on the Saudi record on terrorism.
Bush explained his decision.
"The foreign minister did come and speak to me and I told him this: I said, 'We have an ongoing investigation about what may or may not have taken place prior to Sept. 11 and therefore it is important for us to hold this information close so that those who are being investigated aren't alerted," he said.
"Since I am in charge of fighting the war on terror, we won't reveal sources and methods which may compromise our ability to succeed ... I will never assume the restraint and goodwill of dangerous enemies when lives of our citizens are at work," he said.
U.S. Troops in Liberia
Referring to a different continent, Bush again laid out the conditions for U.S. troops to enter the West African nation of Liberia, whose president, the vastly unpopular Charles Taylor, refuses to leave until a peacekeeping force is in place.
Bush has said that once Taylor is gone and forces from the Economic Cooperation of West African States are ready to go, the United States would be ready to deliver aid to Liberians.
"The idea, of course, is to go in, stabilize the situation, get the [non-governmental organizations] moving back into their positions to be able to help deliver aid and then work immediately with the United Nations to provide blue helmets," Bush said referring to U.N. peacekeeping forces. He added that U.S. troop strength would be limited as will their time frame.
No Bilateral Talks With North Korea
Bush also said that he wouldn't engage in bilateral talks with North Korea because the communist nation has lied before about its plans. North Korea agreed in 1994 to a treaty with the United States to dismantle its weapons program in exchange for food and fuel. But North Korea secretly continued to pursue its nuclear weapons program, and is now believed to have two to three weapons ready and possibly is able to make another half dozen by the end of the year.
"I think that one of the things that is important to understanding North Korea is that the past policy of trying to engage bilaterally didn't work. In other words, the North Koreans were ready to engage, but they didn't keep their word on their engagement. And that ought to be a clear signal to policy-makers of what to expect with North Korea," the president said.
Bush said that he spoke with China's President Hu Jintao on Wednesday morning to see what progress was being made in talks between the two nations, which are much closer to one another than the United States is to North Korea.
"I told President Hu that I think it's very important for us to get Japan and South Korea and Russia involved as well," Bush said.
Signs of Hope in U.S. Economy; Proposed Law Defining Marriage
The president also discussed several domestic issues, including the economy and gay marriage.
"We are beginning to see hopeful signs of faster growth in the economy which over time will yield new jobs. Yet the unemployment rate is too high and we will not rest until Americans looking for work can find a job," Bush said.
He also asked Congress to pass measures on his list of priorities — an energy bill, a child tax credit for lower-income families, and a Medicare prescription drug bill among them.
The administration has been working on a law that would define marriage as a union between a man and a woman. The issue has gained much visibility lately since Canada legalized gay marriage and the Supreme Court struck down sodomy laws, saying the states have no right to interfere in consensual relations between adults.
Bush said that the government is moving toward completing a proposed law.
"I believe marriage is between a man and a woman and I believe we ought to codify that one way or the other and we have lawyers looking at the best way to do that," the president said at the news conference.
Campaigning for Election 2004
Though the president has held several less formal, quicker forums, Bush's press conference was only his ninth so far in his administration. By this point in their presidencies, Bill Clinton had held 33 news conferences, and the first George Bush had held 61.
Bush's former press secretary, Ari Fleischer, suggested this month that such events are things "of the past" designed more for theater than for communication.
But the criticism about not holding a press conference since just before the beginning of the war in Iraq must have been taken to heart. Bush joked with reporters that he would work his way around the White House pool and there was "no need for any unrestrained yelling."
Still, the president is doing most of his communicating directly with the public by going on the road. He also is gearing up a re-election campaign that plans to spend millions to get the administration's message across to American voters.
Asked how he could spend nearly $200 million in the primary season, Bush told a reporter, "Just watch."
As the Senate wraps up its work before leaving for the August recess, Bush too is preparing to leave this weekend for a month at his Crawford, Texas ranch. Bush usually spends August at the ranch, also known as the Western White House, and launches day trips around the country from there. Members of the House of Representatives left Washington for their summer district work period last weekend.