Bush Revisits Centcom With a Different Focus
By Dana Milbank
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 17, 2004; Page A03
MACDILL AIR FORCE BASE, Fla., June 16 -- Last year, President Bush visited U.S. Central Command headquarters here to rally troops in their first week of war in Iraq.
"We will press on through every hardship, we will overcome every danger, and we will prevail," he vowed to the roaring crowd in Hangar 3, praising the advance on Baghdad, the efforts to block Saddam Hussein's use of chemical and biological weapons, and the humane treatment of Iraqi prisoners of war.
On Wednesday, Bush returned to Hangar 3 at MacDill, with camouflage netting and a military jet and band again serving as his backdrop. He delivered another pep talk to the troops, this time assuring them, despite the doubts of many Iraqis and much of the world, that their occupation of Iraq has been good for that country.
"Fourteen months have passed since the fall of Baghdad, and today, in spite of terrorist insurgency, Iraq's economy is moving forward," Bush said in remarks beamed to troops around the world. He hailed new and improved businesses, political parties, newspapers, courts, schools, hospitals, electrical service, immunizations, irrigation and security forces -- and even the first Olympic showing by the Iraqi national soccer team. "All countries gathered in Greece will be able to cheer for the athletes from a free Iraq," he said.
The military audience, subdued by Tampa's oppressive heat, was not as enthusiastic as the wartime crowd Bush addressed on March 26, 2003. And instead of lunching with the troops, as he did last year, the president mourned with the families of 10 soldiers who had died.
But he was unwavering in his optimism for Iraq as it approaches the June 30 official transfer of political authority from the U.S.-led coalition. "There are many challenges yet to come; we can expect more violence in the weeks and months ahead," he said. "But the future of a free Iraq is now coming into view."
Bush's upbeat message was delivered after insurgents disrupted most of the country's oil exports and just before a mortar attack on a U.S. base in Iraq killed two soldiers and wounded 21 people. Also, a poll of Iraqis commissioned by the provisional authority found that 10 percent of Iraqis supported coalition troops in Iraq, and 2 percent regarded them as liberators.
Majorities said they would feel safer if U.S. troops left immediately and expressed a belief that all Americans behaved like the guards who abused prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison, according to the poll, conducted last month and published this week by the Associated Press.
White House press secretary Scott McClellan said Wednesday that he had not seen the poll but added: "We don't want to be occupiers. That's why we're moving forward on the president's five-point plan for transitioning to self-government in Iraq."
Separated by 14 months, Bush's two speeches to the troops at Centcom show the shift in the issues surrounding the Iraq war since it began. Back then, Bush spoke with confidence of Iraq's prohibited weapon stockpiles, which have not been found. "We are also taking every action we can to prevent the Iraqi regime from using its hidden weapons of mass destruction," he said. "We are attacking the command structure that could order the use of those weapons. Coalition troops have taken control of hundreds of square miles of territory to prevent the launch of missiles, and chemical or biological weapons."
Bush also spoke of "decency to an oppressed people" by U.S. forces compared with Hussein's government, a comparison that has been undermined in the region by the Abu Ghraib abuse scandal. "In the ranks of that regime are men whose idea of courage is to brutalize unarmed prisoners," he said. Promising "a day of justice" in Iraq, he added: "We are treating Iraqi prisoners of war according to the highest standards of law and decency."
On Wednesday, Bush reminded the troops of their moral virtue. "Wherever your duty has taken you, I want you to know that you are a part of a great force for good in this world," he said. This time, he made no mention of whether Hussein had prohibited weapons at the time of the U.S. invasion. Instead, he looked toward "a turning point" in Iraq with the June 30 transfer of power.
"When our forces were bringing down the dictator and his regime, I said here at MacDill that our work would not end with the liberation of Iraq," he said. "I pledged that we would help the Iraqi people to find the benefits and assume the duties of self-government. We're keeping our commitment."
Bush's trip followed one by Vice President Cheney to this closely contested state on Monday. Though Bush's visit was not a campaign event, it allowed him to speak of his appeals to veterans, a group Democratic opponent John F. Kerry is courting. Bush traveled with his secretary of veterans affairs and granted an interview on Air Force One to seven veterans publications.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company