MACDILL AIR FORCE BASE, Fla.—After spending the first week of war largely out of sight, President Bush flew Wednesday to a military complex near Tampa, Fla., to rally the troops and warn that the conflict in Iraq may last a long time.
"Our military is making good progress in Iraq; yet this war is far from over," Bush told thousands of enthusiastic military personnel in a hangar that featured a massive U.S. flag on one wall and camouflage netting on another.
"The path we are taking is not easy, and it may be long," the president said. "Yet we know our destination. We will stay on the path—mile by mile _all the way to Baghdad, and all the way to victory."
Bush's visit came a day after the first remains of U.S. troops who were killed in Operation Iraqi Freedom were returned home. It also came amid fierce resistance from Iraqi armed forces and a growing sense that toppling Saddam Hussein's regime may take longer than expected.
Before the speech, Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer said the president intended to say that "progress is ahead of schedule," but Bush struck that line from his text as he reviewed it during the flight to Florida, officials said.
On a day when Iraqis won global media attention by blaming an American missile for killing 15 people in a residential Baghdad marketplace—U.S. authorities said they were unsure of the missile's origin—Bush praised American airstrikes for their "lethal precision."
Later Wednesday, Bush traveled to the Camp David presidential retreat for a two-day war summit with British Prime Minister Tony Blair. They were to dine there Wednesday night along with Bush's wife, Laura, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and Chief of Staff Andrew Card.
Before leaving London, Blair said he hoped to engage Bush in a discussion not only of war strategy, but also of plans for postwar Iraq, including the United Nations' role there and how to improve U.S. relations with Europe.
At MacDill Air Force Base, home to the military's Central Command, which is running the war, Bush seemed to choke with emotion as he said, "I'm honored to be the commander in chief."
As recorded patriotic marches thundered through the hanger, Bush left the scene slowly, shaking scores of hands.
The president wrapped up his visit by lunching under a large tent with about 100 enlisted men and women. He wore a buttoned dark suit, white shirt and blood-red tie. Most of his fellow diners wore green or brown camouflage uniforms.
Bush and the first lady were given plates and made their way down a catered "chow" buffet line that included salad, grilled cheese sandwiches, steak, grilled chicken, lamb chops and baked potatoes.
The president left the line several times to shake hands with soldiers seated near him. "How's everybody doing?" he asked. "Thank you all."
In the distance, flags from dozens of countries that work with Central Command flew over the base. In a bit of irony, the flag most visible from where Bush lunched was that of France, whose opposition to the war has badly strained relations between Paris and Washington.
Earlier, aboard Air Force One, a breakfast menu no longer listed "French toast." Instead, it featured "stuffed Freedom Toast."
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTO (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-BUSH