CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. -- As coalition forces surround Baghdad and the world has learned more about the atrocities of the Iraqi regime, President Bush told Marines and families gathered at Camp Lejeune, N.C., that no scheme of the enemy will divert the United States and its allies from their mission.
"We will not stop until Iraq is free," he said April 3 at the largest Marine Corps base on the East Coast. At least 11 Marines from Camp Lejeune have been killed in Operation Iraqi Freedom and others are missing. The base has deployed more than 17,500 Marines to Iraq and may deploy thousands more.
The president acknowledged that this is a time of hardship for many military families and noted that some have been separated from their loved ones by long deployments.
"All of America is grateful for your sacrifice," Bush said. "And Laura and I are here to thank each one of you."
In commending the Marines for their service to the nation, the president said, "There's no finer sight than to see 12,000 United States Marines and Corpsmen -- unless you happen to be a member of the Iraqi Republican Guard."
Bush spoke of the intense fighting some Marines have encountered in Iraq and recalled their unrelenting courage to push back the enemy.
"These missions are difficult and they are dangerous, but no one becomes a Marine because it's easy," he said. "Now our coalition moves forward. Marines are in the thick of the battle. And what we have begun, we will finish."
The president reiterated America's endeavor to serve a just cause of freeing the Iraqi people and removing weapons of mass destruction from the hands of mass murderers.
"A vise is closing, and the days of a brutal regime are coming to an end," he said.
Bush said in this war the Iraqi regime is terrorizing its own citizens and doing everything possible to maximize civilian casualties in order to exploit the deaths for propaganda.
"In stark contrast, the citizens of Iraq are coming to know what kind of people we have sent to liberate them," he said. "American forces and our allies are treating innocent civilians with kindness and showing proper respect to soldiers who surrender.... People in the United States are proud of the honorable conduct of our military, and I'm proud to lead such brave and decent Americans."
All Americans who serve in Operation Iraqi Freedom can know their fellow citizens are behind them and their government will provide every tool necessary for victory, the president said.
Acknowledging that Camp Lejeune has lost some good Marines in the conflict and that every soldier who dies leaves behind a grieving family, Bush reminded the gathering of a Corps tradition that no one who falls will be left behind on the battlefield.
"Our country has a tradition as well," he said. "No one who falls will be forgotten by this grateful nation. We honor their service to America and pray their families will receive God's comfort and God's grace."
The president said these are sacrifices in a high calling -- the defense of America and the peace of the world. Overcoming evil is the noblest cause and the hardest work, he said, and the liberation of millions is the fulfillment of America's founding promise.
"Our armed services have performed brilliantly in Operation Iraqi Freedom. Moving a massive force over 200 miles of enemy territory in a matter of days is a superb achievement," the president said. "Yet there is work ahead for our coalition, for the American Armed Forces and for the United States Marines. Having traveled hundreds of miles, we will now go the last 200 yards. The course is set. We're on the advance. Our destination is Baghdad, and we will accept nothing less than complete and final victory."
After the address, the president and first lady ate lunch with the troops and then spent half an hour with the families of five Marines from Camp Lejeune who were killed in action, marking the first time during the war the commander in chief met with families of fallen soldiers.
The Bushes made an effort to comfort the families individually and thank them for the sacrifices they've made. The entire meeting was tearful, a senior White House official said. Bush, a father of twin daughters, met six-week-old twin girls who will never know their father because he was killed in combat.
"[Emotional and important moments like this] are part of the job of the commander in chief, and he knows it," the official said. "And he doesn't relish it because he doesn't want war or seek war. But he knows it is the job of the commander in chief to lead the nation in moments of joy and in moments of sorrow."
By Albert H. Lee