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Cheney, Powell Back From Gulf, Meet With Bush : Military: ‘America is behind you,’ President tells troops in a broadcast message for the holiday.

<i> From Times Wire Services</i>

President Bush met for three hours Monday with his senior military advisers to discuss the Persian Gulf crisis and delivered a televised Christmas Eve message to the troops deployed in the Middle East.

Meanwhile, the bodies of 20 crew members of the aircraft carrier Saratoga, killed during a ferryboat accident off Haifa, Israel, during the weekend were returned to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware.

At Camp David, Defense Secretary Dick Cheney and Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, met with Bush from 9 a.m. until about noon, a White House spokesman said.

Cheney and Powell detailed the findings of their just-completed trip to the gulf region.

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Neither the White House nor the Pentagon would discuss the assessment offered by Cheney and Powell, but it was believed that they discussed the readiness of U.S. and allied forces to conduct offensive operations against Iraq after the United Nations-mandated Jan. 15 deadline for Iraq to pull out of Kuwait.

It was the first meeting between Bush and his two top military advisers since last week’s statement by a top U.S. commander in Saudi Arabia that American forces and equipment may not be in place by the mid-January deadline.

Bush went to his presidential retreat in the western Maryland mountains Friday for the holidays. He took time for briefings on developments in the gulf where troops are on heightened alert.

Other top Administration officials were either out of town or leaving. Vice President Dan Quayle planned to ski with his family at Vail, Colo., before leaving for Saudi Arabia on Saturday. Secretary of State James A. Baker III was vacationing and Cheney flew home to Wyoming.

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In his holiday message, taped last week and broadcast Monday, Bush said:

“We’re in the gulf because the world must not reward aggression, because our vital interests are at stake and because of the brutality and danger of Saddam Hussein. We’re there backed by 12 United Nations resolutions and the forces of 25 other countries.

“The sacrifices you make will never be forgotten,” he said. “America is behind you. The world is behind you and history is behind you. When you come home, and we hope it’s soon, you’ll be welcomed as what you are--all-American heroes.”

In Delaware, the flag-draped coffins of the 20 sailors, carried from a C-141 transport plane one by one, were greeted by an honor guard, government officials, tearful family members and friends.

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Another American serviceman is missing and presumed dead. The search for that sailor has been called off.


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