Scattered fire from the political right and left seemed to take its toll as President Bush denied that he "misled anybody" by not giving armed support to Iraqis fighting to overthrow Saddam Hussein.
Forcefully taking on those who have accused him of abandoning Iraqi rebels he exhorted and encouraged to action, Bush argued Thursday that U.S. objectives never extended to - nor were perceived to achieve - a postwar ouster of the Iraqi leader."I don't think the Shiites in the south - who were unhappy with Saddam in Baghdad - or the Kurds in the north ever felt that the United States would come to their assistance to overthrow this man," Bush said.
Visibly agitated by a rash of second
guessing, in which conservative columnist William Safire likened Iraq to Bush's own disastrous Bay of Pigs, Bush vowed with voice rising that U.S. forces "are not going to be sucked into" an Iraqi civil war.
His comments, which came at a news conference with visiting Japanese Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu, followed word from the State Department that the United States will seek U.N. condemnation of Saddam's "brutal" crushing of the Kurdish and Shiite Muslim rebels in Iraq and would aid refugees fleeing the fighting.
Tens of thousands of Kurds and other Iraqis have fled to Turkey and Iran and others are enduring harsh conditions while trying to escape attacks and reprisals by Iraqi forces loyal to Saddam.
Some of the most vicious operations have been carried out with helicopter gunships, sometimes within view or at least range of American occupation forces.
Despite pleas for help from the rebels, whose supporters gathered in protest outside the hotel where Bush met Kaifu, and scattered unease in Congress with the official U.S. policy of neutrality, however, Bush has maintained that direct intervention by American forces would exceed the U.N. mandate to go to war against Iraq.
"We have fulfilled our obligations," he declared. "Now, do we hurt when Kurdish people are killed and hurt and brutalized? Yes. Are we concerned at the brutal treatment of the Shiites in the south? Yes. Do we wish that the people would get rid of Saddam Hussein on their own? Absolutely.
"But I have not misled anybody about the intentions of the United States of America or has any other coalition partner, all of whom, to my knowledge, agree with me in this position."
Said a senior U.S. official: "We're not going to get caught in another Vietnam quagmire."
Bush's reluctance to aid the insurgents militarily was offset by a push on the diplomatic front to seek U.N. condemnation of the fate that has befallen the rebels.
In addition, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the administration is considering ways of stepping up aid to help accommodate the flood of refugees outside Iraq and providing humanitarian assistance "for people inside Iraq" through the International Committee of the Red Cross.
The United States has given $7.6 million in money and food supplies to relief organizations helping the refugees as part of an initial collection of $63 million, administration officials said.
Bush was making a helicopter trip upthe Pacific coast Friday to Los Angeles for a star-studded salute to America's armed forces and the 50th anniversary of the USO.
The president also was making a pitch to Hispanic business leaders for support in his bid to get Congress to allow a yes-or-no vote without amendments on trade pacts, including one with Mexico.
Amnesty offer to Kurds
Iraq, meanwhile, offered an amnesty to all Kurds who took part in their failed rebellion.
A decree from Saddam's ruling Revolution Command Council gave Kurds inside Iraq a week to take advantage of the offer. Those who had fled abroad had two weeks to report back to Iraqi authorities.
The decree, published by the official Iraqi news agency INA said the amnesty covered all Kurds "except those who committed murder, rape and looting during acts of riots and treason."
Reports from Turkey and Iran say about 2 million of Iraq's 3.5 million Kurds are fleeing there, fearing reprisals by Saddam's troops following the collapse of their month-old uprising against him.
Iraqis hit Turk border
In Ankara, a Turkish official said Iraq fired mortars Friday at refugees massed at the Turkish border.
The official, who insisted on anonymity, said the incident occurred near Turkey's Isikveren village where an estimated 100,000 Iraqi Kurds managed to push their way into this country.
He said no further information was available, and the report could not be independently confirmed.