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WASHINGTON (AP) -- President Bush said Saturday that coalition forces "serve a great and just cause" as they fight on several fronts in Iraq.
"Free nations will not sit and wait, leaving enemies free to plot another September the 11th -- this time, perhaps, with chemical, biological, or nuclear terror," he said in his weekly radio address. "By defending our own security, we are ridding the people of Iraq from one of the cruelest regimes on earth."
As coalition forces entered Baghdad for the first time, Bush monitored the battlefield from his usual weekend perch at Camp David in the Maryland mountains. As he does daily, the president convened his war council, with most members participating in the brief meeting by secure videoconference.
Bush prepared for a two-day summit starting Monday in Northern Ireland with British Prime Minister Tony Blair. And he made plans for the postwar rebuilding of Iraq, amid calls to Russian President Vladimir Putin and Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar.
Aides said Bush also was hoping for time to take in the semifinal games of the NCAA college basketball tournament in which the University of Texas team was competing.
In true neutral-politician form, Bush didn't betray any pre-game leanings toward the team from his home state.
"He is, of course, hoping for a final game between one team which wears blue and another which wears orange," said a White House statement showing no preferences -- since one matchup featured teams that both wear blue and the other has teams that both wear orange.
In his radio address, Bush promised Iraqis that their "liberation is coming," combining an upbeat assessment of American military successes with denunciations of the regime that coalition troops aim to overthrow.
"American and coalition forces are steadily advancing against the regime of Saddam Hussein," he said. "With each new village they liberate, our forces are learning more about the atrocities of that regime, and the deep fear the dictator has instilled in the Iraqi people. Yet no crime of this dying regime will divert us from our mission."
Bush leaves early Monday for his third face-to-face talk with Blair in less than a month. Their mid-Atlantic March 16 meeting signaled the end of diplomatic efforts to avoid war. Then just over a week after the war began, Blair paid Bush a visit at Camp David. Now, Bush will travel to Blair's neighborhood with the Iraqi campaign still less than three weeks old.
The choice of Northern Ireland for the summit was pragmatic as well as symbolic, a senior administration official said Saturday. The trip is an opportunity for Bush to get involved in the peace process there -- something that would give Blair a much-needed lift at home -- at a time when promising developments appear within reach, the official said.
Linking Bush to progress in Northern Ireland -- long one of the globe's most intractable disputes -- also offers a tantalizing counterpoint to those who have argued that a peaceful, democratic postwar regime in highly fractured and ethnically diverse Iraq is impossible, the official said.
Until now, Bush has remained mostly uninvolved personally in Northern Ireland peacemaking, delegating almost all of his administration's efforts in the region to Richard Haass, a State Department official who has been the president's point man on the issue.
By contrast, former President Clinton made an unprecedented three trips to Northern Ireland during his eight years in the White House, and maintained hands-on involvement in the process at critical junctures. A peace center there was named in his honor.
White House aides have said the Bush-Blair meeting would be little devoted to hashing out peace plans for either Northern Ireland or the Middle East. Reviewing battle plans in Iraq and the thorny question of who takes the lead in postwar construction were to dominate the session, they said.
(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)