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Bush noncommittal on Saddam handover
Updated: 2004-06-16 01:35

US President Bush said Tuesday the United States will turn over former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein to the new Iraqi interim government but declined to set a timetable.

"I want to make sure that when sovereignty is transferred, Saddam Hussein stays in jail," Bush told reporters. He said the United States was working with the new Iraqi government on the terms of handing over Saddam and making sure there is "appropriate security."

Neither the United States nor the new Iraq government wants there "to be lax security and for Saddam Hussein to not stand trial," Bush said in a Rose Garden news conference with Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

Bush also said it will be up to the new government to determine what to do about radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who since April has been leading insurgents fighting against U.S.-led coalition forces.

"The interim Iraqi government will deal with al-Sadr as they see fit," Bush said. "They will deal with him appropriately."

Bush sought to lower any expectations of a quick, easy transition in Iraq.

"That's just not the way it works when you go from a society that was subjugated by a tyrant to a free society," Bush said.

Earlier Tuesday in Iraq, attackers opened fire on a convoy of foreign contractors, killing some of them, and explosions ripped through two pipelines in southern Iraq, cutting oil exports from the south by half.

Saddam has been in U.S. custody in an undisclosed location since he was found in December, but his status has been under discussion as the June 30 end of the U.S.-led occupation approaches.

Bush said again that the United States "did absolutely the right thing" in removing Saddam from power, calling him a "destabilizing force."

Interim Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi said earlier Tuesday that Saddam and other detainees would be transferred to Iraqi authorities in the next two weeks. Allawi said Saddam would stand trial "as soon as possible."

But Bush declined to be pinned down on timing.

"One thing, obviously that we don't want, and I know the Iraqi interim government doesn't want, is there to be lax security and for Saddam Hussein to somehow not stand trial for the horrendous murders and torture that he inflicted upon the Iraqi people," Bush said. "So we're working with them."

Bush and Karzai fielded questions on a range of subjects.

With the prospects of rising interest rates and higher inflation, Bush was asked if he thought he would have the same problems his father had in 1992 — when a weak economy contributed to his re-election defeat.

"I think one thing the American people have seen is that I know how to lead," Bush said.

"The economic stimulus plan we put in place is working. There's strong growth, there are new jobs being added. Consumer spending is up. After-tax disposable income is high. In other words, the ingredients for continued economic growth are present," the president said.

He was also asked about remarks made at Ronald Reagan's burial service last Friday by Ron Reagan, the late former president's son, criticizing politicians who use religion for political gain.

"I think it's important for people of religion to serve," Bush said. "I think it is very important for people who are serving to make sure there's a separation of church and state."

Bush and Karzai had several joking, even pointed exchanges.

"It's been nice visiting the United States again. One likes to stay here and not go, it's such a good country," Karzai said.

"Get home and get to work, will you?" retorted Bush.

Bush said he would take questions from reporters "in the tradition of democratic societies" and asked Karzai, "Are you ready?"

"I'm ready," Karzai said. "I now know, Mr. President, what the free press means. We have it in Afghanistan."

Then, after two questions, Bush asked Karzai, if he wanted to keep taking questions "Or you want to go eat lunch?" Karzai said he wanted to keep taking questions.

Karzai also had the last word.

"Lunch awaits us," Bush said as he cut off questioning.

"Lunch awaits us, indeed," Karzai said.

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