- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 27, 2003

MACDILL AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. President Bush yesterday said elite Iraqi forces outside Baghdad are coming under "direct and intense attack" from coalition soldiers and warned Saddam Hussein "there will be a day of reckoning for Iraq, and that day is drawing near."
Speaking to several thousand soldiers and military families at the headquarters of Central Command near Tampa, the president promised swift punishment for Iraqis who violate the rules of war set out in the Geneva Convention.
"In the ranks of that regime are men whose idea of courage is to brutalize unarmed prisoners. They wage attacks while posing as civilians. They use real civilians as human shields. They pretend to surrender, then fire upon those who show them mercy," said Mr. Bush.
"This band of war criminals has been put on notice: The day of Iraq's liberation will also be a day of justice," he said, drawing thunderous applause.
Mr. Bush said that just six days into the war to liberate Iraq and disarm Saddam of chemical and biological weapons, "the world is getting a clear view of the Iraqi regime and the evil at its heart."
While he said no one can know how long the war will last, he pledged the United States and coalition partners "will be relentless in our pursuit of victory."
The president, making his first domestic trip since Feb. 20, arrived with all the pomp of the most powerful leader in the world. With thousands crammed into a hot hangar, Air Force One pulled up to the open doors. Mr. Bush and first lady Laura Bush's appearance ignited the crowd.
As the Bush entourage descended the stairs, thousands of troops, clad in desert fatigues, scrambled for photographs and cheered raucously. A line of about 20 soldiers in dress uniforms stood silently holding their rifles.
In his speech, the president praised the bravery of coalition soldiers, who he said are "upholding the great tradition of peace through strength," and expressed his gratitude to gathered family members of the military's men and woman.
"Over the last week, the world has witnessed the skill and honor and resolve of our military in the course of battle. We have seen the character of this new generation of America armed forces; we've seen their daring against ruthless enemies, and their decency to an oppressed people."
The president gave an update on the war, noting that coalition forces have advanced 200 miles in the last three days.
"The dictator's major Republican Guard units are now under direct and intense attack. Day by day, Saddam Hussein is losing his grip on Iraq; day by day, the Iraqi people are closer to freedom," he said.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer told reporters aboard Air Force One that the president would say in his speech "that our progress is ahead of schedule." But Mr. Bush struck the passage on the way to Tampa. "He was erring on the side of being conservative," a senior administration official said.
In the face of criticism that the United States underestimated the strength of the Iraqi military, Mr. Bush said "we have an effective plan of battle and the flexibility to meet every challenge. Nothing nothing will divert us from our clear mission."
Mr. Bush announced that tons of humanitarian aid, held up as forces cleared Iraq's port of mines, had begun to flow into the country. He also lauded the work of the 48-nation coalition, noting that Polish military forces have secured an Iraqi oil platform; Danish subs are monitoring Iraqi intelligence, and Czech, Slovak, Romanian, Ukrainian and Bulgarian forces are "forward deployed in the region."
After his speech, the president attended a classified briefing at the Joint Intelligence Center on operations in Iraq at Central Command, whose top general, Tommy Franks, is running the war from a forward headquarters in Doha, Qatar. He also attended a briefing on Operation Enduring Freedom concerning the ongoing efforts in Afghanistan.
Upon his return, Mr. Bush departed for Camp David, where he greeted British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the staunchest U.S. ally on the war in Iraq. The two leaders, their wives and a small group of advisers talked and dined last night and will hold a press conference this morning at 11.

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