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Bush talks of threats, concerns and U.S. judges

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- President Bush said Wednesday he is "deeply concerned" about Iraq, not that concerned about Osama bin Laden and plans to keep all options on the table -- including nuclear weapons -- to protect the United States from any attacks.

During his first formal news conference of the year, Bush said he is committed to modernizing the U.S. nuclear arsenal while reducing the number of nuclear warheads.

But he said the key word of the U.S. nuclear policy is deterrence.

"We've got all our options on the table because we want to make it very clear to nations that you will not threaten the United States or use weapons of mass destruction against us or our allies or friends," said Bush.

Bush also said he is "deeply concerned about Iraq and so should the American people" because that country is run by Saddam Hussein, a man who killed his own people with chemical weapons.

Bush said Hussein must have something to hide, otherwise he would allow international inspectors into his country to verify Baghdad is not building weapons of mass destruction.

President Bush opens a press conference by criticizing a handful of senators over the delay in the Pickering nomination (March 13)

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Press conference highlights (March 13)

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"He is a problem, and we're going to deal with him. The first stage is to consult with our allies and friends, and that's exactly what we're doing," Bush said, pointing out that Vice President Dick Cheney is in the region this week for that purpose.

By contrast, Bush downplayed concern on the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden, saying the accused terrorist mastermind is on the run and "I truly am not that concerned about him."

Bush said that U.S. forces are "performing brilliantly" in rooting out bin Laden's al Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan.

"We are at war to keep the peace," Bush said, comparing the war on terrorism to World War II.

On the escalating violence in the Middle East, Bush said Palestinians and Israelis both would have to work to create the conditions so the security proposal known as the Tenet Plan could lead to implementation of the Mitchell process that could mean a political settlement.

Bush said he sent special envoy Anthony Zinni back to the region because he thinks the retired Marine Corps general can make progress in the peace process. But Bush criticized Israel for its military reaction to terrorist attacks.

"Frankly, it's not helpful what the Israelis have recently done in order to create conditions for peace. I understand someone trying to defend themselves and to fight terror, but the recent actions aren't helpful."

Bush urges Pickering approval

On domestic issues, Bush accused a few senators of "standing in the way of justice" for blocking the confirmation of his judicial nominees.

He pointed out that the Senate Judiciary Committee is scheduled to vote Thursday on the nomination of Charles Pickering to the United States Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit.

"Judge Pickering is a respected and well-qualified nominee who was unanimously confirmed 12 years ago to the district bench," Bush said in an opening statement. "I strongly urge his confirmation."

The president said lawmakers were ignoring their constitutional obligation to confirm nominees in a timely fashion and were turning the process into "ideological battles that delay justice and hurt our democracy."

Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-South Dakota, has said he would not seek a confirmation vote by the full Senate if Pickering loses the Judiciary Committee vote.

Bush said those senators who would block the full Senate vote were seeking to "undermine the nominations of candidates who agree with my philosophy that judges should interpret the law, not try to make law from the bench."

Among the groups that have come out in opposition to Pickering's nomination are the National Abortion Rights Action League, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People of Mississippi, People for the American Way and the AFL-CIO labor unions.

A former chairman of the Mississippi Republican Party and state senator, Pickering is a longtime associate of Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott's. His son, Rep. Charles "Chip" Pickering Jr., R-Mississippi, was formerly legislative aide to Lott, R-Mississippi.




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