FORT HOOD, Texas—President Bush on Friday rallied troops he might send to war, saying U.S. forces would "liberate" Iraq if Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein refuses to comply fully with U.N. resolutions demanding disarmament.
"We are ready. We're prepared," Bush told a packed, standing-room-only crowd of 4,000 soldiers and their families at the nation's largest Army base. They shouted "Hoo-ah" and waved small plastic flags.
"Should Saddam Hussein seal his fate by refusing to disarm, by ignoring the opinion of the world, you will be fighting not to conquer anybody, but to liberate people," the president said.
"No matter what their oppressors may say, the people of Iraq have no love for tyranny. Like all human beings, they desire and they deserve to live in liberty and to live in dignity," he told the troops.
Bush said it wasn't too late for Iraq to avert a war, and that the use of military force would be a last choice for the United States.
"Even now, he (Saddam) could end his defiance and dramatically change directions," he said. "He has that choice to make. We certainly prefer voluntary compliance by Iraq."
The president told the soldiers that Saddam is a "great threat to the United States" and its allies because he has proclaimed his hatred for America, tortured his own people, used weapons of mass destruction and refused to give up those weapons.
In Bush's remarks to the troops, he mentioned North Korea only once, which is refusing to give up its own nuclear weapons-development program.
"In the case of North Korea, the world must continue to speak with one voice to turn that regime away from its nuclear ambitions. In the case of Iraq, the world has already spoken with one voice," he said.
Deep in the crowd, Capt. Robert Morris of the 1st Cavalry Division, which probably would be sent to the region if there were war, said the speech spelled out America's purpose in the event of conflict.
"We'd be more a liberating force, not a conquering one," said Morris, 36, of Montague, Mich., a Michigan State graduate.
Some civilian family members expressed worry about going to war. One said she opposed a fight with Iraq.
"I just beg the president not to go to war," said Amanda Blair, 19, who said she and her husband, a private first class, got married less than three months ago. Talk of war clouded the holidays, she said. "I was very worried. It was kind of sad. It was our first Christmas, and it could be our last."
Fort Hood is the home of the 3rd Corps and some 41,000 soldiers. The 4th Infantry Division and the 1st Cavalry Division, the Army's biggest with 16,700 troops, are based here. The 1st Cavalry didn't see any action in Afghanistan, but fought in the Persian Gulf War.
Bush viewed some of the weaponry that would be used in a conflict, including an M1A2 Abrams tank nicknamed "Cold Steel."
He chatted briefly with the crew of Cold Steel, passing up tanks nicknamed Anger Management and Anarchy, and kicked a Javelin anti-tank weapon with his cowboy boot.
At lunch at the Theodore Roosevelt Dining Facility—more an upscale college cafeteria than a mess hall—the president rejected the broccoli but took a portion of Steamship Round roast beef and mashed potatoes. Accompanied by first lady Laura Bush and Texas Gov. Rick Perry, he chowed down with 13 soldiers.
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.