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Iraq Journals

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Friday, March 28

Bush, under fire about war's progress, sticks to the script

By Chuck Raasch | GNS

WASHINGTON - Amid rising questions about the pace and plans of the war in Iraq, President Bush on Friday tried to draw a sharper contrast with Saddam Hussein, arguing that atrocities allegedly committed by Iraq ``confirmed the justness of our cause.''

Speaking to a group of veterans at the White House, Bush spoke slowly and deliberately as he repeated allegations of Iraqi atrocities, including the execution of prisoners and soldiers faking surrender and then turning on their would-be captors. It was the latest public incarnation of a president who has run a gamut of expressions since the war began.

"War criminals will be hunted relentlessly and prosecuted severely,'' Bush said, adding that the United States would accept nothing short of total surrender of Saddam's "dying regime.''

Bush's response was intended to leave no question about U.S. resolve after several days of mixed messages from the battlefield. While the Pentagon maintains that the military's gains have been striking and on target, battlefield reports indicate that harassment campaigns from paramilitary groups have been stronger than expected. And there have been few street celebrations in liberated areas.

Tensions rose even further Friday when Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld warned Syria to stop shipments of military equipment, including night-vision goggles, to Iraq and told Iran to stop Iraqi expatriates from flowing across their borders.

In the first days of the war, Bush's emotions ran from steel-jawed warnings the night bombs started falling March 19 to a teary-eyed tribute to troops in Florida a week later to Friday's patriotic appeal before leaders of veterans groups.

Those who know and watch Bush say he has a heavier air about him. One person who has talked with people in White House meetings said Bush has made a point of trying to keep morale high. But a scholar who has studied presidents at war also said Bush looks "older and tireder'' than he did 10 days ago.

In public, Bush has stuck defiantly to a script even amid growing questions about the pace and success of the war in Iraq. His aides privately complain that the news focuses too much on individual slices of the war and not on the overall picture. They pointed out that several days into the successful war in Afghanistan, similar questions arose about tactics and progress before the fall of the Taliban.

But while sticking to his assertion that victory was assured, Bush has stumbled on message. One example: He made overly optimistic promises about humanitarian aid early in the conflict. A ship laden with food and medicine was able to dock in southern Iraq on Thursday, but it has been a struggle.

The night the war began, Bush was straight-shouldered and resolute in announcing a war of liberation. In the war's first few days, he made sure to fold other issues into public appearances.

Shirley Anne Warshaw, a presidential scholar at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania, said the two images are examples of what Bush and his advisers have learned from past presidents in crisis.

She said that during a 1975 confrontation with Cambodia, Vice President Dick Cheney and Rumsfeld were then top advisers to President Gerald Ford. Almost immediately, the United States sent Marines to reclaim the freighter Mayaguez that had been captured by the Cambodians. They were successful after a two-day battle.

She said she also believes that the Bush White House has learned from President Jimmy Carter's experience with the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979-1981.

"If we compare Bush to Carter, for instance, Carter was obsessed with the Iran crisis,'' Warshaw said. "Ford and Mayaguez - they realized they had to be quick and decisive. And part of that team was Rumsfeld and part of that team was Cheney.''

Warshaw said Carter served as an example to future presidents that even amid crisis, they "should not be preoccupied to the extent that it is affecting other things.''

At an appearance at the Pentagon five days into the war, Bush joked with soldiers he met after giving a short speech. A day later, he fired up a Florida crowd at the war's planning headquarters, but he also got teary-eyed and his voice cracked when he mentioned troops on the ground in Iraq.

"I can't recall that I have ever seen a president speaking who has been emotional to the point that he has teared up as much as Bush,'' said Robert DiClerico, a presidential scholar at the University of West Virginia. He pointed out that Bush did the same thing in a meeting with reporters in the Oval Office a few days after the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

"For someone who can often come across as gruff or flip or cavalier, it probably helps him,'' DiClerico said. "I think it helps convey the image that he understands the implications of what he is doing.''

DiClerico said that when he looks at Bush on television, "I see him as someone who feels the weight of what he is carrying. He looks older and tireder.''