Washington — President Bush declared Wednesday that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein is a menace "and we're going to deal with him," and said Osama bin Laden a man he once said he wanted dead or alive has been reduced to a marginal figure in the war on terrorism.
"He's the ultimate parasite who found weakness, exploited it, and met his match," Bush said of the suspected mastermind behind the Sept. 11 attacks. "I truly am not that concerned about him."
In his first full-blown news conference in five months, the president produced strong rhetoric on the war and America's enemies. Bush said he is leaving "all options on the table" as the Pentagon reworks its nuclear weapons policy to deter any attack on the United States including from non-nuclear states such as Iraq, Iran, Libya and Syria.
Critics say the Pentagon's plans to produce less powerful nuclear weapons make it more likely that the United States eventually will launch a nuclear attack. But the president said a modern nuclear arsenal is "a way to say to people who would harm America: 'Don't do it.' ... that there is a consequence."
"The president must have all options available to make that deterrent have meaning," he said.
Bush, holding his fifth formal White House news conference, fielded questions on more than a dozen issues and sought to defuse the toughest questions with humor.
But his eyes grew red and moist as he talked about slain U.S. servicemen in Afghanistan. "I feel responsible" when troops are harmed, he said. "I'm not very good about concealing my emotions."
Israel draws criticism
In a slap at one of the closest U.S. allies, Bush criticized Israel for escalating military action against Palestinians. "It's not helpful what the Israelis have recently done," he said.
Still, the president said Israel has a right to protect itself and expressed optimism that U.S. envoy Anthony Zinni would be able to reduce violence during his Middle East trip.
Israel contends it is waging war against Palestinian terrorists, but Bush drew a sharp distinction between his war on terrorism and the Mideast conflict: "Unlike our war against al-Qaida, there is a series of agreements in place that will lead to peace." He urged Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to embrace them.
On Iraq, Bush did not tip his hand but pledged to consult with allies, many of whom are urging the United States not to take military action.
"All options are on the table," Bush said. "But one thing I will not allow is a nation such as Iraq to threaten our very future by developing weapons of mass destruction."
The United States, which has a long-standing policy calling for a regime change in Iraq, plans to steadily increase pressure on Saddam with diplomatic, intelligence and perhaps even military action, U.S. officials say.
Asked if Saddam was still holding a U.S. pilot captured in the Persian Gulf War, the president replied, "Wouldn't put it past him." New questions have been raised in recent days about Navy Lt. Cmdr. Michael S. Speicher, who is listed as missing in action in the Gulf War.
Vice President Dick Cheney is in the region building the case against Iraq. Bush said Saddam has a record of killing his own people, developing weapons of mass destruction and breaking agreement to allow weapons inspectors into the country.
"He is a problem, and we're going to deal with him," Bush said.
Bin Laden's 'on the run'
Turning to another foe, Bush was unusually dismissive of bin Laden.
"I know the man's on the run if he's alive at all," Bush said.
He asserted that bin Laden, if alive, is marginalized as a leader, no longer running a country or heading a command structure. "We shoved him more and more on the margins," Bush said.
Even with all the talk of war, Bush said a military draft is not in the cards.
"I think we're in good shape" with the voluntary force, Bush said. "If not, I'll address the nation."
Sharply criticized Senate Democrats for opposing Judge Charles Pickering's nomination to the federal appeals court. With the Senate Judiciary Committee poised to reject the Mississippi judge, Bush said there is a "disturbing pattern" of Democrats blocking his judicial nominees for ideological reasons.
Said he was "plenty hot" over news that his administration recently issued visas to two of the suicide hijackers who slammed a commercial airliner into the World Trade Center. Suggesting that he chewed out Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft, the president said, "He got the message."
Pledged not to turn over records of his energy policy meetings to Congress' investigative arm and said he will not allow domestic security chief Tom Ridge to testify before Congress. "I'm not going to let Congress erode the power of the executive branch."
Refused to acknowledge the Zimbabwe's election, calling the victory of incumbent Robert Mugabe the result of a "flawed election."
Said he was confident the Catholic church would "clean up its business" and deal with reports of molestation by priests. He backed embattled Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston, who recently gave prosecutors the names of at least 80 priests accused of sexually abusing children. "I respect him a lot."
Predicted that he and Russian President Vladimir Putin will sign a security accord during Bush's visit to Russia in May. But he cautioned that any arms reductions must be verifiable and said destroying nuclear weapons will take time.