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Bush: US is safer with Saddam in prison
Updated: 2004-07-05 08:54

Defending the war in Iraq, U.S. President Bush said on Independence Day that America is safer because Saddam Hussein is in a prison cell.

"Our immediate task in battle fronts like Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere is to capture or kill the terrorists ... so we do not have to face them here at home," Bush told a cheering crowd outside the West Virginia Capitol. An enthusiastic audience estimated by state capitol police at 6,500 people waving American flags chanted, "Four more years."

Regarding Saddam, the deposed Iraqi president, Bush said: "Because we acted, the dictator, the brutal tyrant, is sitting in a prison cell."

Two Bush opponents, taken out of the crowd in restraints by police, said they were told they couldn't be there because they were wearing shirts that said they opposed the president. Supporters of Bush's presumed opponent in November's election, US Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry, attended a picnic across the street from the capitol at state Democratic Party's headquarters.

West Virginia, which went to Bush in 2000, is considered a pivotal state in the 2004 race, its five electoral votes up for grabs.

Making a pitch for votes in a state where 200,000 veterans comprise 15 percent of the population, Bush praised veterans for "setting a good example for those who have followed ... in Afghanistan and Iraq," said Bush. Thirty-six percent of all male West Virginians fought in World War II, 16 percent in Korea and 20 percent in Vietnam.

In his ninth visit to West Virginia since taking office, Bush also thanked National Guard members for their service in a state where 77 percent of the 6,200 National Guard troops have been activated since the Sept. 11 attacks, including every Army Guard unit except the band and an aviation detachment at in Wheeling. That ranks the state among the top five in National Guard deployments per capita.

The Bush administration has come under increasing criticism after a staff report from the commission investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks found little evidence of collaboration between the ousted Iraqi leader and Osama bin Laden's terror organization, al-Qaeda. Such a link was one of the administration's justifications for invading Iraq.

That report said contacts between al-Qaida and Saddam aides over the years had produced no evidence of actual assistance from Iraq.

Vice President Dick Cheney, who also visited West Virginia during the weekend, reaffirmed the administration's position in a speech last week in New Orleans that stood by his long-held assertions of connections between al-Qaeda and Saddam.

Cheney said Saddam sent a brigadier general in the Iraqi intelligence service to Sudan to train al-Qaeda in bomb-making and document forgery. Cheney said Saddam was part of a terrorist threat that had gone largely unchecked before Bush's presidency.

With the public apprehensive about the violence in Iraq, the administration has pointed to last week's transfer of political power to an interim Iraqi government and the first steps in the legal process for Saddam's trial as signs of progress.

The economy, too, is an important election-year issue for West Virginians, and Bush declared, "Our economy is healthy and growing, and that's good news because more people are finding work every single day. That's what we want."

West Virginia's unemployment rate was 5.2 percent in May, down from 6.4 percent last July. The current figure does not count the many people who have withdrawn from the labor force because no jobs are available, said Tom S. Witt, director of West Virginia University's bureau of business and economic resources.

Engine trouble on Air Force One delayed the president's departure from Hagerstown Regional Airport in Maryland, near Camp David, where Bush spent the weekend. A second Boeing 757 was brought from Andrews Air Force Base to take Bush to West Virginia.

Sunday was Bush's second presidential Fourth of July in the state. In 2002, he spoke at Ripley, 30 miles north of Charleston.

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