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Final Push to Baghdad Under Way, Says Bush - 2003-04-03

With coalition troops rapidly closing in on Baghdad, President Bush is predicting victory in Iraq. During a visit with U.S. Marines at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, Mr. Bush praised coalition forces, while comforting the families of those already lost in battle.

The president says coalition troops have come a long way, and the final push into the Iraqi capital has begun.

"Having traveled hundreds of miles, we will now go the last two hundred yards," the president said.

It was a reference to a bit of military lore in which Marines stand alone in the last battle, for the last bit of enemy ground. And it struck a responsive chord with the crowd at Camp Lejeune, the home base of more than 17,000 Americans now serving in Iraq. Thousands of their colleagues in camouflage uniforms joined with family members in a huge open field to cheer on the president's words.

"We are on the advance. Our destination is Baghdad," he said. "And we will accept nothing less than complete and final victory."

The president said a vise is closing, and the days of the Iraqi regime are coming to an end. He listed a series of atrocities he said were committed by Iraqi leaders clinging to power, such as terrorizing civilians, and executing prisoners of war. Mr. Bush said once again that those responsible for such acts will be treated as war criminals. And he renewed a vow to the Iraqi people.

"We hear all Iraqis who yearn for liberty. And the people of Iraq have my pledge: our fighting forces will press on until your entire country is free," he said.

President Bush took note of the accomplishments of U.S. led coalition forces in the first two weeks of the war. But he also spoke of their sacrifices and those of their families.

At no American military base have the sacrifices entailed in this war been felt more strongly than at Camp Lejeune. It has lost more of its men and women in combat in Iraq than any other U.S. armed forces installation. The president's voice turned somber as he spoke of the Camp Lejeune Marines killed or missing in action.

"There is a tradition in the corps that no one who falls will be left behind on the battlefield," the president said. "Our country has a tradition as well. No one who falls will be forgotten by this grateful nation."

After his speech and lunch with the troops at a base dining hall, President Bush met privately with the relatives of some of the lost Marines. White House spokesman Ari Fleischer told reporters traveling with the president that it would be a tough and emotional meeting. He said about 20 family members who live in the Camp Lejeune area would attend, and Mr. Bush would spend some time alone with everyone in the room.