President Bush warned anew Wednesday that war in Iraq may be difficult and long but said U.S. troops will forge on -- "mile by mile all the way to Baghdad, and all the way to victory."
In his first major public outing since the war began, Bush struck a somewhat defensive note, apparently trying to answer critics who have questioned the U.S. strategy of bypassing major population centers in southern Iraq and racing toward Baghdad -- a move that has exposed troops in the rear to deadly attacks.
"We have an effective plan of battle and the flexibility to meet every challenge," the president told a crowd of military personnel and families at this Air Force base, home to U.S. Central Command, operations center for the war on Iraq. "Nothing, nothing will divert us from our clear mission. We will press on through every hardship. We will overcome every danger. And we will prevail."
En route to Tampa, Fla., aboard Air Force One, White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer had said Bush would report that the war was progressing ahead of schedule -- "based on the progress that is being made on the military battlefield, the advance toward Baghdad, and the success that we are having engaging enemy units."
But Bush made no such statement in his 25-minute speech. Instead, he said: "Our military is making good progress in Iraq. Yet this war is far from over."
A senior White House official said later: "He was erring on the side of being conservative."
In the two weeks before launching the war, Bush canceled nearly all public events as he worked with military planners. He made a quick, tightly choreographed trip to Portugal's Azores islands for emergency consultations with the prime ministers of Britain and Spain. Then he made two televised speeches from the White House last week -- one to give Iraqi President Saddam Hussein a 48-hour ultimatum, the second to announce the start of hostilities.
Since then, Bush has left most statements about the war to Pentagon officials. Until Wednesday, the president had spoken in public only twice -- once Sunday when he answered questions from reporters as he returned to the White House from Camp David, and then in a speech to Pentagon personnel Tuesday.
The trip to the MacDill base was apparently designed to highlight Bush's role as commander in chief while showcasing his support for the military officers who are making the day-to-day decisions about the war.
Analysts said the president must walk a fine line as the war proceeds: He needs to demonstrate his leadership and resolve but avoid personalizing the conflict. If the war comes to be seen as a showdown between him and Hussein, it could backfire on him politically if the fighting bogs down, analysts warn.
John Mueller, an expert on public opinion and war at Ohio State University, said Bush has passed the stage of "selling" the public on the need for the attack. Now the president's fortunes depend very much on how the war progresses.
"What he has to do is win the war handily," Mueller said. "Unless that happens, it's not clear talking is going to do any good."
That may be one reason Bush's appearances have been so tightly controlled, said James Thurber, director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University in Washington. The president and his aides apparently believe he's better off if he avoids settings where he could face skeptical questions from the public or the news media, Thurber said.
"He legitimately needs to show the American public that he's the commander in chief, and that sounds like what he's trying to do," Thurber said. "But he's in a protected environment. It's all structured, and he's setting the agenda."
Indeed, the crowd gathered Wednesday in a giant hangar gave him a thunderous welcome that left him visibly buoyed.
The tableau, if not the content, of the event had the trappings of a campaign rally. The hangar's vast sliding doors were left open and Air Force One pulled to a stop on the tarmac just beyond the doors as the crowd cheered lustily.
After his speech, a beaming Bush flashed a thumbs-up sign and saluted. Then he beckoned First Lady Laura Bush to join him in greeting the troops along a rope line.
The U.S. Central Command is responsible for U.S. military operations in 25 countries, from the Horn of Africa and the Persian Gulf to Central Asia. Its commander, Army Gen. Tommy Franks, is directing the war against Iraq in Doha, Qatar. The base also is home to the Special Operations Command, which directs operations by U.S. special operations units.
In his speech, Bush mentioned Hussein only once, when he insisted, "Day by day, Saddam Hussein is losing his grip on Iraq."
He denounced Iraqi soldiers who pose as civilians while ambushing GIs and use civilians as human shields as "a band of war criminals," and he vowed to punish them.
The president also said that U.S.-led forces are "taking every action we can" to prevent the Iraqi regime from using hidden weapons of mass destruction.
He spoke in somber terms about the looming battle for control of Baghdad, saying U.S. soldiers will face "the most desperate elements of a doomed regime."
After his speech, Bush toured the Central Command's joint intelligence center and received a classified briefing.
Chen reported from Tampa, Reynolds from Washington.