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ONE-YEAR ANNIVERSARY SPECIAL REPORT

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Thursday, April 3

Bush consoles Marines' grieving families, praises troops

By Richard Benedetto | GNS

CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. - President Bush played alternate roles of morale booster and consoler Thursday in a visit to this U.S. Marine Corps base, whose battle units have suffered the largest number of deaths in Iraq.

Bush gave a rousing speech to some 12,000 cheering, camouflage-clad Marines and their families, praising the progress of the war, the courage of U.S. troops and the justness of the cause of freeing the Iraqi people and making America safer from weapons of mass destruction.

"A vise is closing, and the days of a brutal regime are coming to an end,'' he declared. ``We will not stop until Iraq is free.''

The speech was punctuated by vigorous applause and lusty cheers, like when Bush, looking out over the sea of Marines jamming the parade ground before him, declared there was no finer sight. Pausing, he added, "Unless you happen to be a member of the Iraqi Republican Guard."

Later, he and first lady Laura Bush lunched with Marines in the base mess hall. The Bushes then met privately for a half-hour with some 20 grieving members of the families of five dead Marines who were based at Camp Lejeune.

A senior administration official described the meeting as emotional, with some family members crying and Bush getting ``teary-eyed'' himself.

The official said the president and the first lady met separately and together with the family members, which included wives, parents and children. Among the children were 6-month-old twins and a 2-week-old child.

Among the Bush remarks to family members the senior official said he overhead were: ``He's in heaven,'' ``God bless you all,'' ``The world will be more peaceful,'' and ``I'm proud of you.''

In his public speech, Bush saluted fallen American troops, saying they gave their lives in a high calling: ``the defense of our nation and the peace of the world.''

And he asked for God's blessing and healing grace for their families.

"Overcoming evil is the noblest cause and the hardest work. And the liberation of millions is the fulfillment of America's founding promise. The objectives we've set in this war are worthy of America, worthy of all the acts of heroism and generosity that have come before,'' he said.

As Bush spoke, there were reports out of Iraq that coalition forces had moved within four miles of Baghdad and had attacked Baghdad International Airport, signaling that a major attack on the city, the last stronghold of the Iraqi regime, is drawing closer.

"Having traveled hundreds of miles, we will now go the last 200 yards,'' Bush vowed.

The president's visit here was his third to a military installation since the war began two weeks ago, but his first to a base hard hit by combat deaths. Camp Lejeune was home to at least 13 Marines killed in the fighting so far. Another six from the base are missing in action.