updated 3/6/2007 11:30:44 AM ET 2007-03-06T16:30:44

President Bush said Tuesday that U.S. and Iraqi forces are making important progress in a security crackdown in Baghdad but warned that America's enemies will retaliate with deadly attacks.

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Three weeks into an intensified security effort, Bush said, "It's too early to judge the success of this operation ... But even at this early hour there are some encouraging signs."

Iraq's government has kept its pledge to deploy three additional Iraqi army brigades to Baghdad and has lifted restrictions that prevented coalition and Iraqi forces from going into certain areas, the president said.

Expect 'spectacular' al-Qaida attacks
Bush offered his assessment in a speech before the American Legion. "We can expect al-Qaida and other extremists to try to derail this strategy by launching spectacular attacks," he said.

He used the occasion to announce he has named a bipartisan team to lead an investigation of problems at the nation's military and veterans hospitals, choosing longtime Republican Sen. Bob Dole and Donna Shalala, who was secretary of health and human services in the Clinton administration.

"We have a moral obligation to provide the best possible care and treatment to the men and women who served our country," Bush said in a speech to the American Legion. "They deserve it and they're going to get it."

Already grappling with low approval ratings and eager to avoid charges that he failed to act promptly, Bush said an interagency task force of seven Cabinet secretaries, led by Veterans Affairs Secretary Jim Nicholson, would be convened to determine what can be done immediately to improve veterans' care.

The president announced last Friday he had ordered a comprehensive review of conditions at the nation's network of military and veteran hospitals, which has been overwhelmed by injured troops from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The review came in the wake of disclosures of shoddy outpatient health care at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, one of the nation's premier facilities for treating veterans wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Bush announced in January he was sending an additional 21,500 U.S. troops to Iraq, largely for a crackdown on violence in Baghdad, despite widespread opposition to the war and opposition to his plan in the Democratic-controlled Congress.

'There are no shortcuts in Iraq'
Bush said critics in Congress want to have it both ways - fighting terrorists in Iraq and deterring Iran's influence in the country while also pushing to withdraw troops.

"That sounds good in theory, but doing so at this moment would undermine everything our troops have worked for," Bush said. "There are no shortcuts in Iraq."

He pushed Democrats in Congress to approve his latest spending request for the Iraq war without any limitations.

"Members of Congress have every right to express their opinions. They have every right. They also have a responsibility to fund our war fighters," he said.

Violence has dropped in the capital. But U.S. military officials say insurgents have fled Baghdad for outlying areas, where attacks are on the rise.

Bush said Iraqi and U.S. forces have rounded up more than 700 people affiliated with Shiite extremists, and also have launched successful operations against Sunni extremists.

"Iraqi and U.S. forces are making gradual but important progress almost every day, and we will remain steadfast until our objectives are achieved," Bush said.

Vets' health care review
Bush's appointment of Dole and Shalala was greeted with applause.

Dole, as a young Army officer during World War II, was grievously wounded in action in the Italian Apennine Mountains. He spent years in treatment and underwent numerous surgeries. He went on to become Senate majority leader as a Republican lawmaker and later ran unsuccessfully for president.

Shalala was secretary of Health and Human Services under President Clinton. She is now president of the University of Miami.

Nicholson - who on Monday announced new measures to speed the processing of military benefit claims and cut through red tape for soldiers who served in Iraq and Afghanistan - said Tuesday the horror stories emerging from the hearings were "unacceptable."

"It breaks my heart," Nicholson told CBS' "The Early Show." But he drew a distinction between the benefit claims backlog and the delivery of needed medical treatment. "If they come to us for health care they are admitted immediately," he said.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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