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FORT HOOD, Texas (AP) - President Bush met Sunday with two helicopter pilots who were held as prisoners of war in Iraq, and said Iraqis will have better lives with Saddam Hussein out of power. He also advised the Iraqi leader, if alive, to watch out.
"I would suggest he not pop his head up," Bush told reporters after meeting at an Army base with Chief Warrant Officer David S. Williams and Chief Warrant Officer Ronald D. Young Jr., who arrived home Saturday with five of their fellow captives.
Saddam's fate is not clear, and Bush was asked for the latest update. "Yes, Saddam Hussein is no longer in power. That's for certain. He was in power, and now he is not. And therefore, the Iraqi people's lives will be much better off," Bush said.
The president said "the liberation of Iraq will make the world more peaceful."
He visited the pilots and their families, saying he had "a good talk with them. Good, strong men."
Williams said the meeting "was an absolute honor." Added Young: "We stand 100 percent behind whatever our president decides to do. We're honored to serve him. And this is definitely one of the highlights of my life, absolutely."
Bush said he was not worried that anti-U.S. demonstrations led by religious leaders in Iraq might hurt rebuilding efforts.
"Freedom is beautiful, and when people are free, they express their opinions. And, you know, they couldn't express their opinions before we came. Now they can," Bush said.
"I've always said democracy is going to be hard. It's not easy to go from being enslaved to being free. But it's going to happen, because the basic instincts of mankind is to be free. They want to be free."
Bush came to Fort Hood, the nation's largest military base, to attend Easter church services and then see the pilots.
He attend services at the 4th Infantry Division Memorial Chapel. Joining him were Williams, 30, of Orlando, Fla., and Young, 26, of Lithia Springs, Ga., and their families.
The Apache helicopter pilots were forced down in Iraq on March 24. They were rescued, with five other American POWs, on April 13 in northern Iraq after Iraqi captors abandoned their posts ahead of advancing American troops.
The pilots, with the Army's 1st Cavalry Division, returned to Fort Hood late Saturday, just after the five other soldiers got back to Fort Bliss in Texas.
Some 42,000 troops are normally based at Fort Hood. But almost half the soldiers at the Army installation have been deployed to the Iraq region, a base spokesman said.
Bush is taking an Easter vacation at his 1,600-acre ranch outside the central Texas town of Crawford. He took a helicopter to the Army base, which is about 50 miles south of the ranch.
His parents, former President George H.W. Bush and his wife, Barbara, joined the president and first lady Laura Bush at the base. Also in the group were the president's mother-in-law, Jenna Welch, and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice.
After the Easter break, White House aides say Bush will return to a heavy travel schedule to promote his domestic policies, primarily his proposed tax cuts.
(Copyright 2003 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)