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CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL

President Bush Addresses Americans Wounded in Action

Aired April 11, 2003 - 15:39   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN ANCHOR: You are looking at a live picture of President and Mrs. Bush, who have been meeting face to face with some of those Americans wounded in action.
GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: ... extraordinary experience. I'm here at Bethesda and initially at Walter Reid to thank our troops who have been overseas in Iraq for their dedication and courage and their service to the country. Because of troops like them, because of coalition troops, we've had a historic week.

I don't think I'll ever forget, and I'm sure a lot of people will never forget the statue of Saddam Hussein falling in Baghdad and then seeing the jubilation on the faces of ordinary Iraqis as they realized that the grip of fear that had them by the throat had been released. The first signs of freedom.

I came today to thank the troops and their families and their loved ones for their sacrifice. I also want to thank the staffs of these hospitals, the leadership, the doctors and the nurses, the people who care for those who have been hurt, for their extraordinary service to their fellow Americans.

Ours is an amazing country where a young soldier can be wounded in the battlefield and four days later can be receiving the best healthcare possible. The country is dedicated to our military, to try to provide the very best we can. And here at Bethesda and at Walter Reid our troops get the very best there is.

So Laura and I were here to not only thank our soldiers, but also to thank those in the medical profession who dedicate their lives to healing the hurt and to helping the families. And that's exactly what's happening for our soldiers here in these two fine facilities. I'll be glad to answer a couple of questions.

QUESTION: Mr. President, what progress are we making to (OFF- MIKE)?

BUSH: The priority of this campaign is to rid the Iraqi people of any vestiges of Saddam Hussein and his regime so we can not only free the people, but clear that country of weapons of mass destruction. I don't know the whereabouts of Saddam Hussein. I don't know if he's dead or alive. I do know he's no longer in power.

In terms of POWs, we will use every resource we have to find any POWs that are alive. And we pray that they are alive, because if they are, we'll find them -- Steve (ph).

(OFF-MIKE)

BUSH: I don't take anything personally. I committed our troops because I believe that the Saddam Hussein regime posed a threat to the American people, posed a threat to anybody who loves freedom. We will be able to achieve that objective, and at the same time we will free the Iraqi people, and that's an important objective as well.

We believe in freedom. We believe freedom is universal. We believe freedom is a gift from the almighty god for every person, regardless of their race or their religion.

This war will end when our commanders on the field tell me that the objective has been achieved. And Tommy Franks put together a great strategy. The wonderful thing about free speech and a lot of TV stations is you get a lot of opinions. Some of them are right and some of them are really wrong, but that's OK.

That's what we believe. We believe in free speech. We believe people ought to be albe to express their opinion.

(OFF-MIKE)

BUSH: Paula (ph), I can't hear you. There's something beeping here. We had a major beeper violation right here. Say it again.

(OFF-MIKE)

BUSH: Yes. No, the specific thing I want to hear is that our commanders say we've achieved a clear objective that I set out. And that's when we will say this is over.

This is a campaign that has been run on the front lines by General Tommy Franks and that's the way it's going to continue to be. That Tommy gets the -- Tommy tells us what is necessary to achieve the objective. We gave Tommy the tools necessary to win. We agreed with his strategy, and he's running this war. And when Tommy says we've achieved our objective, that's when we've achieved our objective.

I'm here in washington, D.C.; he's there in Qatar. And he's got commanders in Baghdad. He's better to judge whether we achieved the objective than I have. Go ahead.

(OFF-MIKE)

BUSH: The war will end when Tommy Franks says we've achieved our objective.

(OFF-MIKE)

BUSH: Syria just needs to know we expect full cooperation. And that we strongly urge them not to allow for Ba'ath Party members or Saddam's families or generals on the run to seek safe haven and find safe haven there. We expect them to do everything they can to prevent people who should be held to account from escaping into their country. And if they are in their country, we expect the Syrian authorities to turn them over to the proper folks.

(OFF-MIKE)

BUSH: That's a very speculative question about foreign priorities. My priority right now is to win the war on terror. And that means we've got ongoing operations in Afghanistan, and the Iraqi theater was a part of the war on terror. And we continue to fight the war on terror.

So that's a major priority. Beyond that, obviously, is the promotion of the health and well being of citizens around the world. I am very serious about the AIDS initiative for Africa. But we will continue to deal with it, and we'll continue to deal with issues like proliferation at home.

Obviously, I'm spending a lot of time on economic growth and working with members of the United States Congress to encourage them to pass a stimulus package that will affect the economy so people can find work. I want to make sure Medicare gets done. That is, the reform of Medicare, so that seniors are able to receive the healthcare that they've been promised. I mean there's a lot on my agenda.

(OFF-MIKE)

BUSH: Conversations?

(OFF-MIKE)

BUSH: Well I think the thing that stood out the most to me was seeing two wounded soldiers swear in as citizens of the United States. One man from Mexico, one man from the Philippines. People who had gone overseas. People who had risked their lives for peace and security and freedom.

They wore the uniform of the United States military. And Laura and I got to see them sworn in as citizens. It was a very profound moment.

We were both honored to witness this. You know we've got an amazing country where it is so powerful the values we believe that people would be willing to risk their own life and become a citizen after being wounded. It's an amazing moment. I'm really proud of it. Yes, ma'am?

(OFF-MIKE)

BUSH: It's good. The Marines are a tough group, as you know. And a lot of the troops wanted to get healed quickly so they can go back with their units.

It's an amazing thing when you see a person wounded sitting in a wheelchair or bound up in bandages, or these different looking metal things sticking out of them to hold them together, a young man look you in the eye and say, "I can't wait to get back to my unit. I hope I'm healed back enough to get back to Iraq." It's a brave lot here in Bethesda. People who are willing to sacrifice for something greater than themselves. And I feel lucky as an American to be a part of a country where citizens are willing to do that.

I reminded them and their families that the war in Iraq is really about peace, trying to make the world more peaceful. This victory in Iraq when it happens will make the world more peaceful.

I reminded them that their sacrifices really had to do with the security of our country, and Saddam Hussein and his terrorist allies, or threats to America. Threats to our people because of what we believe in. I also reminded them that their courageous sacrifice will help young Iraqis grow up in a free society. That out of the chaos that takes place there now, and after the fear of a Saddam Hussein and his thugs, that the Iraqi people will run their own country, make their own decisions, choose their own leaders and will become a country of peace with others in the neighborhood.

And so their sacrifices, as I told them, were worthwhile. And it's an honor to have spoken to them and have been with them and their families today. Thank you all very much.

CROWLEY: Again, the president wrapping up a brief news conference at Bethesda Naval Hospital in suburban Washington. He has been there visiting injured Marines and sailors. Earlier, he was at Walter Reid Hospital in Washington visiting some of the wounded Army there.

Let's bring in John King, our senior White House correspondent. John, anything in particular strike you out of that?

JOHN KING, CNN SR. WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well certainly, Candy. The president is trying to make the case -- and this was his first time he's spoken in public since the fall of the statue and the fall of the Saddam Hussein regime -- but the president very much trying to make the case that this war is far from over in his view.

He says, yes, Saddam Hussein is removed from power. He doesn't know if he's dead or alive. But the president said only when Tommy Franks calls him from the field and says all of the objectives are achieved will this war be over. And the president went on to say that those objectives include taking on the remaining vestiges of the regime still in Iraq, freeing the Iraqi people and getting a new administration up and running, and an issue that often is forgotten in the days of the combat, then searching for the weapons of mass destruction the president insists are in Iraq.

So Mr. Bush making the case that this war is hardly over. He only briefly alluded to what he called the chaos in Iraq; a number of questions today about what the administration will do to improve security on the ground. The president acknowledged there was "chaos," in his words, but he said quite optimistically that better days are ahead for the Iraqi people -- Candy.

CROWLEY: John, it strikes me what we saw here was a bet of that CEO presidency. Look, it's Tommy Franks' war; we'll give him what he needs, he'll let me know when it's over. I also want to know if you saw anything, read anything into that sort of little side trip he took on to the other things that he was interested in, mostly domestic issues.

KING: Well he was asked a question -- an open-ended question about what are his other foreign priorities, and you heard him mention the ongoing war against terrorism, which of course is priority number one over seas for this president in Iraq and in Afghanistan.

He mentioned an AIDS initiative in Africa, but then you're right, he turned the question back to the domestic debate here at home. This is a president in the middle of a war now. He is a president who will be in the middle of a campaign this time next year. And he knows, despite how well this operation might appear to be going right now, he will be judged on the state of the U.S. economy, on the state of the healthcare debate.

And the president took that question and turned it immediately into an opportunity to say, hey, I want the Congress to give me a tax cut and an economic stimulus package. I want the Congress to act on his Medicare plan. So a president even as he visits the troops, pays tribute to them, and is in a middle of a war, took an immediate opening there to try to remind the American people he has not forgotten about the issues and the problems -- chief among them the economy -- here at home.

CROWLEY: Thanks so much. CNN's senior White House correspondent, John King.

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