MacDILL AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. (AP) – President Bush said yesterday the war in Iraq is far from over and the toughest battles lie ahead as coalition forces near Baghdad. After rallying troops, Bush flew to Camp David for a war council with British Prime Minister Tony Blair

Shabina Khatri
President Bush shares a laugh with Army Sgt. Louie Castillo, far left, before starting lunch after a briefing at MacDill Air Force Base yesterday.

“I can assure you there will be a day of reckoning for Iraq, and that day is drawing near,” Bush told hundreds of cheering American troops and their family members in a packed hangar in Florida.

“Our military is making good progress in Iraq, yet this war is far from over” he said, making a last-minute change of wording that dropped a reference to the U.S. military being “ahead of schedule.”

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer, briefing reporters on the way here aboard Air Force One, said Bush would tell his audience “Our progress is ahead of schedule, yet this war is far from over.”

Bush decided to delete the “ahead of schedule” phrase during a final review of the speech on the plane, aides said later.

U.S.-led troops encountered stiffening Iraqi resistance as the ground war entered a sixth day. And American and British casualties raised questions about battle plans.

But Bush proclaimed anew that allied forces would prevail and overthrow the government of Saddam Hussein.

“As they approach Baghdad, our fighting units are facing the most desperate elements of a doomed regime. We cannot know the duration of this war, but we are prepared for the battle ahead,” Bush said in his hangar speech.

“We will stay on the path, mile by mile, all the way to Baghdad and all the way to victory,” he said to thunderous applause.

Bush received classified briefings on the war during his visit to the headquarters of the U.S. Central Command on this Air Force base in Tampa, Fla. The unit’s top general, Tommy Franks, is running the war from a command center in Qatar.

The president spoke a day after the first bodies of American servicemen were brought back to the United States.

“We pray that God will bless and receive each of the fallen, and we thank God that liberty found such brave defenders,” the president said.

He said their deaths would not be in vain.

“Day by day, Saddam Hussein is losing his grip on Iraq. Day by day, the Iraqi people are closer to freedom,” he said.

Beset by criticism that the war was being mainly fought by U.S. and British troops, Bush listed contributions from other coalition members.

“Polish military forces have secured an Iraqi oil platform in the Persian Gulf. A Danish submarine is monitoring Iraqi intelligence providing early warning.

“Czech, Slovak, Polish and Romanian forces, soon to be joined by Ukrainian and Bulgarian forces, are forward deployed in the region, prepared to respond in the event of an attack of weapons of mass destruction. … Spain is providing important logistical and humanitarian support,” Bush said.

The president met with military representatives of some of these nations during his visit here. He also had lunch with U.S. troops.

His breakfast came with a dig at French opposition to the war: The menu aboard Air Force One listed “stuffed Freedom Toast,” instead of French toast.

White House aides expressed surprise, suggesting responsibility for the wording of the menu was the responsibility of the Air Force, not the White House.

At lunch, Bush walked an outdoor chow line, filling his plate with steak, baked potato and salad. He greeted troops – Army and Navy as well as Air Force – and sat down to eat with them. “How’s everybody doing?” he asked as he shook a hand.

Bush and Blair planned to talk privately over dinner yesterday night, followed by a series of meetings and a news conference today.

Fleischer, the White House spokesman, said the two leaders would discuss progress of the war as well as postwar reconstruction.

Blair has advocated a more aggressive role for the United Nations in administering postwar Iraq than has Bush. “The president’s focus is on what’s effective,” Fleischer said.

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