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Bush: Coalition Still in Opening Phase of Tough Fight With Iraq - 2003-03-23

President Bush says the U.S.-led coalition is still in the opening phase of a tough fight with Iraq. He says some pockets of resistance remain, and there are disturbing reports some Americans may now be prisoners of war. But Mr. Bush says, overall, the military plan is on track.

The president says he is satisfied with progress on the battlefield. But at the same time, he says he grieves for those lost in battle, and seeks more information about the missing.

Mr. Bush spoke with reporters as he returned to the White House from his Camp David presidential retreat. His helicopter landed just hours after the Arab satellite television network Al-Jazeera broadcast what appeared to be images from Iraq of captured and killed American soldiers.

The president's tone was determined and somber. He said he was still waiting for details. But he made clear that anyone who mistreats a prisoner of war will be considered a war criminal.

"I don't know all the details yet," he said. "I do know that we expect them to be treated humanely, just like we will treat any prisoners of theirs that we capture humanely."

President Bush said this war is tough; much tougher than some expected. He said military goals are being met, but victory will take time.

"I know that Saddam Hussein is losing control of his country, that we are slowly but surely achieving our objective," he said. "It is important for the American people to realize that this war has just begun."

He pointed to successes thus far, expressing relief that coalition forces made rapid gains in the oil-rich southern Iraq where there were fears Saddam Hussein regimes might set fire to numerous oil fields.

"Most of the south is now in coalition hands," he said. "Obviously, there are pockets of resistance in places like Basra. We are making great progress. In the west we are making great progress. The area of the launch site for the scuds while certainly not 100 percent secure, is one where we made good progress."

It was his first question and answer session with reporters since his announcement last week that the war had begun. Mr. Bush was asked about concerns Turkey might heighten tensions by sending troops into Kurdish-dominated northern Iraq.

"We are making it very clear to the Turks that we expect them not to come into northern Iraq," he said. "We are in constant touch with the Turkish military as well as Turkish politicians. They know our policy."

During his weekend stay at Camp David, the president met in seclusion with members of his war council, including the secretaries of defense and state, and the director of central intelligence. He is expected to discuss the financial cost of the war on Monday with congressional leaders.