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Bush rallies troops at Central Command in Florida

'We will stay on the path'

From John King
CNN Washington Bureau

President Bush, left, receives a briefing at Joint Operations Center at the Central Command headquarters in Florida.
President Bush, left, receives a briefing at Joint Operations Center at the Central Command headquarters in Florida.

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Warning of difficult days ahead but vowing victory, President Bush rallies troops at Central Command headquarters. CNN's John King reports.
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• The "day of reckoning" for Iraq's leaders is drawing near, and "every day has brought us closer to our objective."

• The war in Iraq "is not easy and it may be long," but the United States will ultimately win it.

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MACDILL AIR FORCE BASE, Florida (CNN) -- Warning of difficult days ahead but vowing victory, President Bush rallied troops at Central Command headquarters in Florida Wednesday and thanked other nations for their support in the war in Iraq.

"There will be a day of reckoning for the Iraqi regime and that day is drawing near," Bush said to thunderous applause.

The president crossed out a line in his prepared remarks that declared the U.S. and coalition war effort in Iraq "ahead of schedule." A senior aide said Bush was just being conservative in his public assessments and in no way doubted the battlefield plan or the progress in implementing it.

But the edit was an ironic twist on a day when the president's major goal was to rebut critics who have questioned the U.S. war plan. In his speech, Bush sounded an optimistic note about the war's progress.

"We will stay on the path, mile by mile, all the way to Baghdad and all the way to victory," Bush said.

Still, the president cautioned that tough battles likely lie ahead, warning of "desperate elements of a doomed regime." He said Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's Republican Units are under "direct and intense attack."

"Every nation here today shares the same resolve," Bush said, adding that 48 countries are involved in Operation Iraqi Freedom. "We will be relentless in our pursuit of victory."

Bush's visit to the Central Command came at a time when many administration officials are voicing exasperation with media accounts questioning the U.S. and coalition military strategy. These officials say Iraqi forces and paramilitary units are providing stiff resistance in some locations, but that the overall battle plan is progressing on or even ahead of schedule.

The president stressed the role that other nations are playing in the conflict. Nations offering direct and indirect military support for Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan are represented at the Tampa, Florida headquarters of the Central Command.

Before Bush's arrival in Florida, there was a tongue-in-cheek reminder of the diplomatic hard feelings left over from the run up to war. Aboard Air Force One on the flight to Tampa, the breakfast menu included stuffed "Freedom Toast," the latest example of changing menus to show displeasure with the French for refusing to support the U.S. position at the U.N. Security Council.

Blair meeting

Bush headed to Camp David after returning from Florida, for strategy talks with British Prime Minister Tony Blair that will focus on the war efforts and plans for running a postwar Iraq.

Both Bush and Blair have promised the United Nations will have a role in the postwar administration, but the United States appears to be more skeptical than London about how prominent -- and how quick -- any U.N. role should be.

National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice met with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan on Tuesday to discuss humanitarian assistance inside Iraq, and plans to get the U.N.'s oil-for-food program resumed -- and expanded -- as soon as possible. Proceeds from Iraqi oil sales would be used to fund postwar programs including humanitarian assistance but also reconstruction efforts.

The United States plans to have a military-led administration in place as soon as possible, and then to bring in Iraqis from within and outside the country as part of a transitional administration. U.S. officials say the sequencing of this transition plan is difficult to predict because so much depends on the security situation on the ground after combat operations.

President Bush meets with British Prime Minister Tony Blair at Camp David on Wednesday.
President Bush meets with British Prime Minister Tony Blair at Camp David on Wednesday.

These officials say any differences between the United States and Great Britain are, as one put it, "preliminary disagreements" because so many critical decisions remain to be made.

Two U.S. officials also said Iraqi dissidents slated to take prominent roles in any postwar administration have voiced concerns about the U.N.'s role. "The U.N. has a history of slow, bloated bureaucracy with high overhead costs, and there are concerns from the Iraqi side that a big U.N. role could actually delay getting things to the point where Iraqis run Iraq," one U.S. official told CNN.

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