Bush cheers MacDill

MACDILL AIR FORCE BASE — President George W. Bush assured troops at MacDill Air Force Base on Wednesday that Saddam Hussein is losing his grip on Iraq.

However, on a day when Iraqis began to resist U.S. forces around Baghdad, he reminded the military that the war is far from ending.

Bush greeted hundreds of uniformed troops and their families in a hangar to rally support among Americans and military personnel for the nation’s battle to remove the Iraqi regime.

“We cannot predict the final day of the Iraqi regime, but I can assure you … there will be a day of reckoning for the Iraqi regime,” Bush said. “We have an effective plan of battle and the flexibility to meet every challenge.”

News sources reported that the Iraqi troops were heading south early Thursday in preparation for a possible encounter with coalition forces.

Bush said the military has remained focused throughout the first week of the war and will continue to “overcome every danger.”

He added that special forces have secured airfields and oilfields to prevent them from any sabotage and have taken appropriate action in areas representing potential threats to the United States.

“We’ve destroyed the base of a terrorist group in northern Iraq that sought to attack America and Europe with deadly poisons,” Bush said. “We’re also taking every action we can to prevent the Iraqi regime from using its hidden weapons of mass destruction.”

Bush commended troops and Central Command for coordinating a coalition “that is disarming a dangerous enemy.”

He referred to CentCom as “silent warriors” for being first on the ground in Iraq. MacDill is the headquarters of Central Command, which coordinates military operations in 25 countries.

“Every nation represented here refuses to live in a future of fear at the mercy of terrorists and tyrants,” Bush said. “We will be relentless in our pursuit of victory.”

Bush’s visit to Tampa came after the first killed American soldiers were brought back home. About 20 American soldiers were missing or killed in artillery engagements Tuesday, along with two British pilots who died when their jet was shot down by friendly fire.

“We pray that God will bless and receive each of the fallen, and we thank God that liberty found such great defenders,” Bush said. “Every victory in this campaign and every sacrifice serves the purpose of defending innocent lives in America and across the world from the weapons of terror.”

Bush thanked the troops at MacDill for their support and service to the U.S. military.

“I want you to know your nation appreciates your commitment and your sacrifice in the cause of peace and freedom,” Bush said.

Marine Staff Sgt. Manuel Feliz said since last week, military personnel at MacDill have had mixed feelings about the war.

“Everyone has personal feelings,” Feliz said. “Being in the military, even though one might not agree or people are still in awe or a little in shock, when it comes down to it, they support our leader.”

To defend criticism that the United States’ only main supporter in military action was Britain, Bush cited efforts made by other coalitions partners recently.

“The Australian military is providing naval gunfire support and special forces and fighter aircrafts on missions deep in Iraq,” Bush said. “Coalition military forces have secured an Iraqi oil platform in the Persian Gulf.”

In addition, Bush said Czeck, Slovak, Polish and Romanian forces are prepared to respond to an attack of weapons of mass destruction and will soon be joined by Ukrainian and Bulgarian forces.

“In the early stages of this war, the world is getting a clear view of the Iraqi regime and the evil at its heart,” Bush said. “They use real civilians as human shields.”

Bush further defended his decision for a war he said was inevitable by criticizing the Iraqi government.

“The 24 million people of Iraq have lived too long under a violent criminal gang calling itself a government,” Bush said. “Iraqis are a good and gifted people. The day of Iraq’s liberation will also be a day of justice.”

Bush added that the United States could no longer delay taking action on a country that poses a “threat” to American citizens.

“We will not wait to meet this danger with firefighters and police and doctors on the streets of our own cities,” Bush said. “Instead, we are meeting the danger today with our (military branches). The path we are taking is not easy, and it may be long … We will stay on the path, mile-by-mile, all the way to Baghdad and all the way to victory.”

Gov. Jeb Bush and first lady Laura Bush also attended the rally.

Bush said he was proud of the governor and thanked members of the Florida congressional delegation who flew on Air Force One.

Following his speech, Bush ate lunch with troops and their families. Bush left MacDill at about 1:30 p.m. to head for Camp David where he planned to meet with British Prime Minister Tony Blair.