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Bush keeps up verbal assault

President Bush said Thursday he was "more determined than ever" to thwart Saddam Hussein, but stressed that he is doing everything he can to avoid bloodshed. Iraq, meanwhile, announced that four ill and elderly American hostages would be released and again denied that its captives were being mistreated _ despite fresh reports to the contrary.

Bush carried his message from Massachusetts to Florida to drum up support for Republican congressional and gubernatorial candidates. For the fourth day in a row, he put strong emphasis on the gulf crisis and the situation of American hostages.

"Today I am more determined than ever: This aggression will not stand," he told an audience in Burlington, Mass. "The brutality against innocent citizens will not be tolerated and will not stand."

Bush was harshly critical of the Iraqi leader, calling Saddam Hussein more brutal than Adolf Hitler. But he emphasized, "I want desperately to have a peaceful resolution to this crisis."

In Orlando, where he campaigned for Gov. Bob Martinez, Bush denied that he has been attempting to prepare Americans for a war in the Middle East.

He said his expressions of outrage over the way the Iraqi leader is treating Americans at the U.S. Embassy in Kuwait are not intended to escalate the crisis. He also denied any link between his increased criticism of Hussein and next week's elections.

"I want to have a peaceful resolution to this question," Bush said. "We're prepared to give sanctions time to work. We're not ruling out our options or preparing the nation for war."

Bush said he has tried to separate his comments about the Middle East from domestic politics.

"I think the American people feel as I

do," Bush said. "I am addressing it in a nationally covered press conference and not overstating the feelings I have."

Bush was asked about comments made by his wife, Barbara, who suggested during a separate campaign appearance earlier Thursday that the president might be willing to have a face-to-face meeting with Hussein.

"I would consider it if there was an agreement that he would totally withdraw and comply with the U.N. sanctions with no conditions," Bush said. "But I don't think it would be a particularly pleasant meeting."

Bush said his wife "said it on her own. We haven't discussed it."

Bush bitterly derided Hussein's characterization of more than 300 Americans being held in Iraq as "guests."

Referring to hostages being held as human shields near possible military targets, Bush said, "I don't believe Adolf Hitler ever participated in anything of that nature."

Later, asked if that was an exaggeration, Bush said: "I don't think I'm overstating it. I know I'm not overstating my feeling about it."

He later said he did not mean to compare Hussein's actions with Hitler's Holocaust, but he did equate the conduct of Iraqi troops with that of the Nazi regiment that terrorized the citizens of Poland at the start of World War II.

His voice dripped with sarcasm when he replied to a suggestion from Hussein that the hostages' relatives might visit their trapped family members over the Christmas holiday. "I don't think he'll win the humanitarian-of-the-year award for that," Bush said.

Earlier, the State Department condemned Iraq's offer as "shameless, cruel and insensitive," but said it would not prevent people from making such visits.

"The idea that this is somehow supposed to be in the Christmas spirit of having people come visit family members who are being held as hostages at strategic sites is just really a very sick notion," spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler said.

Iraq, in the face of U.S. charges of maltreatment of the captives, announced Thursday that four elderly and ill American hostages would soon be freed.

The official Iraqi News Agency identified the four as Randall Trinah, Dr. Abdul Kanji, Raymond Galles and Michael Barnes. The report did not give their ages or hometowns.

It said they were being released in response to a petition from a group called the Arab-American Reconciliation Society.

About 400 Americans remain captive in Iraq and occupied Kuwait, more than 100 of them held as "human shields" at potential military targets.

Iraqi officials accused Bush of using the hostage issue as a pretext for a military strike and repeated claims that the hostages were being well treated.

"It is clear that the Bush administration is bent on escalating the situation in the gulf through fabricating lies and justifications to accelerate military action against Iraq," a Foreign Ministry spokesman said Thursday.

"We stress emphatically that all foreigners including Americans who are Iraq's guests receive full and good treatment concerning housing, food and medical care."

But two smuggled letters from captive Americans made very different claims about life in Iraqi captivity.

One captive, whose identity was not released, said that he had lost 35 pounds and that he had received no mail or messages in two months of captivity.

The other described the toll of isolation as captivity stretched on.

"You can survive. But individually interned, (one) must be psychologically capable of living alone within himself," he wrote. He added a plea: "Do not forget the guest hostages."

_ Information from the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Associated Press and Reuters was used in this report. Times staff writer Lucy Morgan also contributed.

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