President George W. Bush offered an impassioned defense of the U.S. -led overthrow of Saddam Hussein on Tuesday at Fort Campbell where he thanked troops for their service and gave encouragement to thousands of soldiers getting ready to deploy to Iraq and Afghanistan.
Bush strode into a chilly hangar where a band played patriotic tunes and troops in camouflage uniforms shouted "Air Assault," a reference to the base being home to the 101st Airborne Division's Air Assault. "Job well done," Bush said in a brief speech rallying troops two days before Thanksgiving.
Since the beginning of the month, more than 10,000 soldiers have returned to Fort Campbell — 9,000 coming back from Iraq and about 90 from Afghanistan.
"In recent weeks, this post has been the scene of heartwarming family reunions," he said. "Many of you have recently finished deployments to Iraq. You performed with courage and distinction on the front lines of the war on terror. You have returned on success."
Other troops from the base, however, are getting ready to deploy. During the next couple of weeks, the White House said 3,000 soldiers from the 101st Airborne are going to Afghanistan and 450 are being sent to Iraq. In January, another 1,200 from Fort Campbell will be deployed to Iraq.
"The war in Iraq is not over," he said about the conflict that has claimed at least 4,200 members of the U.S. military. "But we're drawing closer to the day when our troops can come home. And when they come home, they will come home in victory," he said.
'Rendezvous with destiny'
Bush noted that he visited Fort Campbell in 2001, the day before his first Thanksgiving as president. "For those of you who weren't here, I can only say that watching a bunch of Screaming Eagles tear into turkey is quite a sight," he said. Then his tone turned somber, as he recalled that his 2001 visit to the base came shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the beginning of the war in Afghanistan.
"That November day, I said, 'Once again, you have a rendezvous with destiny,'" Bush said. "And today there is no doubt that you upheld this motto. You have done your duty. ... You have taken the battle of the terrorists overseas so we do not have to face them here in the United States."
Bush said that in Afghanistan, U.S. troops removed the oppressive Taliban regime, which harbored terrorists who planned the Sept. 11 attacks. In Iraq, U.S.-led forces toppled Saddam and paved the way for a young democracy.
"Removing Saddam Hussein was the right decision then, and it is the right decision today," he said.
The Bush administration is anxiously awaiting the outcome of the Iraqi parliament's vote this week on a proposed security pact with the United States, which would allow U.S. troops to stay in Iraq through the end of 2011.
In Baghdad on Tuesday, a key Sunni bloc demanded a national referendum on the Iraqi-U.S. security pact and other concessions in exchange for its support for the agreement. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Cabinet has already approved the agreement. But the ruling coalition's main Shiite and Kurdish partners would only muster a slight majority in the 275-seat legislature if the largest Sunni Arab group, also represented in the ruling coalition, remains opposed to the agreement. The vote is scheduled for Wednesday.
The White House expressed hope parliament would approve the pact. White House press secretary Dana Perino noted three bombings Monday in Baghdad that killed at least 22 people.
"If you look at the violence that took place there yesterday ... it reminds us that the Iraqis have come a long way," Perino said. "But they're not quite there yet to be able to take care of all their security needs on their own, and they continue to need our support.