In a shift of emphasis, President Bush on Friday termed the war against Iraq "a noble purpose" that would not only make the world safer but also "free the people of Iraq from the clutches of Saddam Hussein and his murderous allies."
Speaking to war veterans in the White House East Room, Bush said that when the war is won, "all who have joined this cause will be able to say to the Iraqi people: 'We were proud to fight for your freedom.' "
Bush has spoken previously of his desire to foster democracy in Iraq and other parts of the Middle East after ousting Hussein's regime. But Bush has justified the war largely on the basis of ridding Iraq of weapons of mass destruction that might be used against the United States or other countries.
The president's focus Friday on freedom for ordinary Iraqis was a clear appeal to the 24 million citizens of that country, where thus far, fewer people than expected by U.S. officials have defected or welcomed the American-led coalition as liberators.
Bush also declared that Iraqi war criminals will be "hunted relentlessly and judged severely."
He accused President Hussein's regime and military of a variety of "war crimes," such as brutalizing and executing prisoners of war, killing Iraqi soldiers who refuse to fight and posing as civilians in order to ambush American troops.
"Every Iraqi atrocity has confirmed the justice and the urgency of our cause," Bush said. "Against this enemy we will accept no outcome except complete victory."
His remarks were roundly applauded by about 100 representatives of veterans service organizations, whom he thanked for providing aid and support to families of service personnel deployed to the Persian Gulf.
Bush also said that U.S. troops were "making great progress" and that Hussein's forces now control only "a small portion" of Iraq.
"Coalition troops continue their steady advance and are drawing nearer to Baghdad," the president said. "We're inflicting severe damage on enemy forces. We are now fighting the most desperate units of the dictator's army."
But with a potentially bloody and drawn-out battle in Baghdad looming, Bush also warned of tough days ahead.
"The fierce fighting currently underway will demand further courage and further sacrifice," he said.
"Yet we know the outcome of this battle: The Iraqi regime will be disarmed. The Iraqi regime will be removed from power. Iraq will be free."
In waging war against Iraq, he added, "we are sending a clear signal to the world that we will not submit to a future in which dictators and terrorists can arm and threaten the peace without consequence ... and we refuse to leave the Iraqi people in slavery under Saddam Hussein."
Shortly after he spoke, Bush left for Camp David, the presidential retreat in Maryland's Catoctin Mountains, where he planned to spend the weekend.
On Monday, the president is scheduled to tour the port of Philadelphia and speak about homeland defense.
That appearance comes at a time when congressional Democrats -- even those who back the war in Iraq -- are increasingly questioning whether the administration is providing sufficient resources to protect Americans against further terrorist attacks.