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Bush thanks Marines; vows 'complete and final victory'

Pays tribute to fallen Marines

President Bush:
President Bush: "The course is set. We're on the advance."

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CAMP LEJEUNE, North Carolina (CNN) -- Declaring "a vise is closing" around Baghdad, a confident President Bush Thursday told an enthusiastic audience of Marines, corpsmen and their families that the days of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's regime are numbered.

"Having traveled hundreds of miles, we will now go the last 200 yards," Bush declared to the crowd of about 20,000. "The course is set. We're on the advance. Our destination is Baghdad and we will accept nothing less than complete and final victory."

The commander-in-chief gave an optimistic assessment of progress in the war in Iraq, just two weeks old, but he also paid tribute to those members of the armed forces who have lost their lives and he warned that "there's work ahead."

This Marine Corps base has felt the cost of the war personally. At least 11 Marines from Camp Lejeune have been killed in the war, and others are missing. The camp has deployed more than 17,500 Marines to Iraq and is poised to deploy several thousand more.

"No one who falls will be forgotten by this grateful nation," Bush said.

After having lunch with the Marines, Bush and first lady Laura Bush met with about 20 people from five families who have lost loved ones in the war. One senior administration official described that meeting as "emotional" and "tearful." (Full story)

The president was greeted heartily by the Marines, who often interrupted his speech with cheers and applause.

"There's no finer sight -- no finer sight -- than to see 12,000 United States Marines and corpsmen," Bush said, pausing for effect before delivering the next line -- "unless you happen to be a member of the Iraqi Republican Guard."

Bush's visit to Camp Lejeune marks his third visit to a military installation since the war began. Tuesday, he visited a Coast Guard facility in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and last week he visited MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida.

The president, who has steadfastly refuted critics who have questioned the Pentagon war plan, delivered an upbeat progress report, an assessment that comes as military leaders say U.S.-led troops are on the outskirts of Baghdad.

"What we have begun, we will finish," Bush declared. As he has before, Bush decried what he described as some tactics of Iraqi forces, saying they would be treated as war criminals.

"Some servants of the regime have chosen to fill their final days with acts of cowardice and murder," Bush said. "In combat, Saddam's thugs shield themselves with women and children. They have killed Iraqi citizens who welcome coalition troops. They force other Iraqis into battle by threatening to torture or kill their families."

At the White House, administration officials said a quiet confidence had taken hold there, with the president encouraged by the progress U.S.-led forces have made in their march toward Baghdad.

The administration, the officials said, believe it has successfully rebutted the major criticisms of the U.S. war plan in Iraq.

-- Senior White House Correspondent John King contributed to this report.

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