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WASHINGTON (AP) -- President Bush pledged Wednesday that the United States will deal harshly with those who attack American troops in Iraq, and said such violence will not undercut his resolve to keep Americans there until stability is restored.
"Anybody who wants to harm American troops will be found and brought to justice," Bush said at an impromptu news conference at the White House. "There are some who feel like if they attack us, we may decide to leave prematurely. They don't understand what they're talking about if that's the case."
Increasing attacks have killed 26 U.S. soldiers since Bush declared major combat over on May 1. On Tuesday, assailants traveling in a vehicle in central Baghdad fired a rocket-propelled grenade at a U.S. military vehicle, wounding three soldiers. Another grenade slammed into a U.S. truck on a road south of Baghdad, injuring three soldiers, one of whom died at a field hospital overnight.
"There are some who feel like that, you know, the conditions are such that they can attack us there. My answer is bring them on," Bush said. "We got the force necessary to deal with the security situation."
Bush said he would welcome assistance from other countries willing to send troops to help restore peace.
"Anybody who wants to help, we'll welcome," Bush said. "But we got plenty tough force there right now to make sure the situation is secure."
He also promised harsh justice for people who sabotage Iraqi infrastructure such as power lines.
"Those who blow up the electricity lines really aren't hurting America, they're hurting the Iraq citizens," Bush said. "Their own fellow citizens are being hurt. But we will deal with them harshly as well."
The president also gave a forceful defense of the Iraqi war. He rejected a question about whether there was a gap between what intelligence and administration officials reported as the threat from Saddam Hussein, and the scant evidence found so far of an Iraqi weapons program.
"Saddam Hussein had a weapons program," Bush said. "Remember he used them -- he used chemical weapons on his own people."
Bush made no mention of the failure of U.S. teams to find evidence of weapons of mass destruction, but said, "We're bringing some order to the country and we're beginning to learn the truth."
Bush did not explicitly promise, as he has in the past, that weapons or evidence of a weapons program will be found. But, he said, "It's just a matter of time, a matter of time."
He also expressed impatience with the criticism leveled at his administration in recent weeks.
"See, we've been there for, what -- I mean, how many days" Bush said. "Eighty, 90? Frankly, it wasn't all that long ago that we started military operations. And we got rid of him; much faster than a lot of people thought."
And Bush compared the Iraqi operation to the humanitarian effort he is undertaking to combat AIDS in Africa and the Caribbean.
"It's been a great honor to lead our nation in not only the cause of humanitarian relief through an AIDS initiative, but also to lead our nation to free people from the clutches of what history will show was an incredibly barbaric regime," Bush said.
Bush fielded questions on a wide array of topics -- a departure from his usual practice of answering a couple of queries or none -- during an appearance in Roosevelt Room, where he announced Randall Tobias as his choice to the new AIDS initiative.
The president said he had spoken Wednesday morning to Russian President Vladimir Putin to thank him for help with confronting weapons programs in North Korea and Iran. Bush also said he had talked by phone with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordan's King Abdullah II about progress toward peace in the Middle East.
"The best way to describe it is, we're really happy with what we've seen so far," Bush said. "But we're realists in this administration. We understand that there's been years of hatred and distrust, and we'll continue to keep the process moving forward."
Bush spoke about human suffering and unrest in Liberia, but he stopped short of saying whether his administration should send peacekeepers to the West African nation -- an idea opposed by a U.S. military already committed to other world trouble spots.
Bush said he's asked Secretary of State Colin Powell to work closely with the United Nations to determine the best way to keep a cease-fire in place. But he called for Liberian President Charles Taylor to cede power and leave the country.
"We're exploring all options as to how to keep the situation peaceful and stable," he said. "One thing has to happen: Mr. Taylor needs to leave the country. ... In order for there to be peace and stability in Liberia, Charles Taylor needs to leave now."
(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)