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WASHINGTON - President Bush says "some evidence" exists that U.S. air strikes on the first night of the Iraq war may have killed or severely wounded Saddam Hussein .
That would clear up some other mysteries, he told NBC's Tom Brokaw, including why there weren't more oil field fires, why dams weren't blown up and why the Iraqi defense of Baghdad was so uncoordinated.
In a wide-ranging interview on Thursday aboard Air Force One — his first extensive one since before the war — Bush cautioned Iran and Syria anew not to interfere in Iraq. But he said in the interview that the United States has "no military plans" against either nation.
Bush acknowledged rising demands from Iraqis that U.S. troops leave Iraq, but he said they would remain "as long as necessary." Could that mean two years? Brokaw asked. "Could — or less. Who knows," Bush said.
He had pointed words for his critics, from the Dixie Chicks to French President Jacques Chirac.
Of Chirac, who led the opposition at the United Nations to the war against Iraq, Bush said: "I doubt he'll be coming to the ranch any time soon."
Bush has invited other world leaders to his Texas ranch, including Australian Prime Minister John Howard — a war supporter — for next weekend.
Bush said the position charted by Chirac for Europe "would weaken ... the NATO alliance."
Of the singing Texas trio, who have been outspoken critics of the U.S.-led war, Bush said, "The Dixie Chicks are free to speak their mind."
At the same time, Bush added: "They shouldn't have their feelings hurt just because some people don't want to buy their records when they speak out. You know, freedom is a two-way street."
Bush returned Thursday afternoon from a trip to Ohio, where he promoted his tax-cut plan and visited a tank manufacturing plant. As he entered the White House, he flashed a grin and made a thumbs-up gesture when asked by reporters about news that Tariq Aziz, the former deputy prime minister of Iraq, had been captured.
He had no public appearances scheduled for Friday.
While still in Ohio, Bush raised the possibility that any Iraqi weapons of mass destruction were destroyed before or during the U.S.-led war, suggesting for the first time that coalition troops may come up empty in their search.
But in the interview with Brokaw, he said he still believes some of these weapons will be found but that "it's going to take time to find them."
He conceded that "there's going to be a lot of skepticism until people find ... a weapons of mass destruction program."
In the NBC interview, Bush also:
_Said that looting and vandalism, particularly in hospitals and museums was "the absolute worst part" of an otherwise successful military campaign. "It's like uncorking a bottle of frustration," Bush said.
_Confided that he was "hesitant at first" to order the first-night bombing. "I was worried that ... the first images of the American attack would be death to young children."
_Poked fun at the Iraqi information minister, who gave outlandish briefings denying U.S. forces were in Baghdad when they were just blocks away. "It was one of the classics. It was just unbelievable what he was saying."
_Said he hoped to invite Palestinian Prime Minister-designate Mahmoud Abbas to the White House "one of these days. ... I look forward to working with him." Bush indicated longtime Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat would not be invited.
_Accused North Korea of returning "to the old blackmail game" in saying on Thursday that it had nuclear weapons — and might test, export or use them.
Bush was asked about intelligence on Saddam's purported whereabouts that led to the bombing raid on the first night of the war. "As the intelligence got richer, I got more confident with the notion that Saddam would, in fact, be there," he said.
Some U.S. officials later suggested that Saddam may have survived that first bombing, if not later blasts targeting him and his sons.
But Bush said there's still a chance that the strike that first night did the job. It might "explain why dams weren't blown up or oil fields weren't destroyed, even though we found them wired potentially to be blown up," he said.