updated 5/15/2004 11:21:42 AM ET 2004-05-15T15:21:42

President Bush is focusing on the killers in Iraq who beheaded American civilian Nicholas Berg, insisting they must be hunted down as part of a strategy ultimately designed to bring peace to the U.S.-occupied country.

“We must confront the enemy and stay on the offensive until these killers are defeated,” Bush said in his weekly radio address, as he sought to shift the focus from the abuse of some Iraqi prisoners by American troops.

With polls showing his approval ratings at the lowest level of his presidency, Bush went on the offensive, saying that Marines are systematically dismantling the militia of a radical Shiite cleric and are disrupting enemy attacks in the Fallujah area, home of Saddam Hussein loyalists and other militants.

In the Democrats’ weekly radio address, presidential candidate John Kerry lauded American troops in noting Saturday was Armed Forces Day but said the nation must face up to its mistakes.

Kerry lauds troops
The United States “has a duty to guarantee that, when mistakes are made, those responsible are held accountable whether they are at the bottom of the chain of command or at the top,” the Massachusetts senator said.

“We have a duty to look ahead so that once victory on the battlefield is won, we have a plan to win the peace,” he said.

And, he said, the United States has a duty to lead alliances so that the country and its troops will not have to bear “almost alone the burdens of defending freedom.”

The high stakes involved in the June 30 handover of government to Iraqis were underscored Friday, when Secretary of State Colin Powell said U.S.-led coalition forces would leave the country in the unlikely event the new interim government should ask them to do so.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan said later that the United States only stations its forces in places around the world “where we are welcome, and I fully expect our forces to continue to be in Iraq at the invitation of a sovereign government on July 1.”

Bush drove home the point in his radio address, declaring that “the vital mission of our military in helping to provide security will continue on July 1st and beyond.”

Damage control
The administration is concluding a week of damage control following the airing late last month of photos showing U.S. soldiers abusing Iraqi detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison originally made infamous as a place of torture under Saddam’s regime.

In a swift response, Vice President Dick Cheney questioned whether hundreds of other photos along with some video in the military’s hands ought to be released and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld made a surprise visit to the U.S. troops in Iraq. Congress saw the additional pictures, but the public didn’t.

The grisly beheading of Berg by killers who said they were avenging the victims in the prisoner abuse scandal became one more argument for keeping the additional pictures of abuse under wraps for now.

“My administration and our military are determined that such abuses never happen again,” Bush said. “All Americans know that the actions of a few do not reflect the true character of the United States armed forces.”

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