WASHINGTON -- President Bush reiterated that the United States has "a vital national interest" in Iraq, following a meeting of his national security team at the Pentagon today.
Bush met with Vice President Dick Cheney, Seccretary of State Colin Powell National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Joint Chiefs Chairman Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers.
Bush also received briefings via videoteleconference calls from military commanders in the field.
In a brief statement following the meeting, Bush expressed strong support for Rumsfeld, who some critics have called on to resign in response to the detainee abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. "You are a strong secretary of defense, and our nation owes you a debt of gratitude," the president said.
The president said the leaders discussed the needs of military personnel, current operations and the progress of Iraq toward security and sovereignty. He said it is important to finish the mission in Iraq. Free institutions in Iraq will give other countries in the region a model to counteract the appeal of terrorism and dictatorships in the region, the president added.
Bush said the way the coalition carries out the mission has changed as the threats have changed. "As we carry out this mission, we are confronting the problems squarely and we are making changes as needed," he said. "Our priorities, however, remain the same: the protection of our country, the security of our troops and the spread of freedom throughout the world."
Bush said the United States will take every necessary measure to assure the safety of American and coalition personnel and the security of Iraqi citizens. "We're on the offensive against the killers and terrorists in that country, and we will stay on the offensive," the president vowed.
He said coalition forces are maintaining pressure on the Iraqi city of Fallujah. Marines and Iraqis are confronting former regime elements and foreign fighters. "We're keeping that pressure on to ensure Fallujah ceases to be an enemy sanctuary," Bush said.
The 1st Marine Expeditionary Force is poised for action in the city, and also is patrolling nearby cities of Ramadi and Habbinayah, he said. "We've taken every precaution to avoid hurting the innocent as we deliver justice to the guilty," the president said.
In the Shiia holy city of Najaf, "the military is systematically dismantling an illegal militia that has attempted to incite violence and seize control," he said. Soldiers from the 2nd Light Cavalry Regiment are locating the enemy, the president added, and others from the 1st Armored Division are "steadily defeating these forces while seeking to protect the people and holy sites."
The president said he is encouraged that local Iraqis are stepping forward to help solve the problems in Najaf.
Bush said supplying and protecting U.S. forces in Iraq is a long-term responsibility. He has asked Congress to provide an additional $25 billion for a contingency reserve fund that can be used for ongoing operations in Iraq.
The president said the loss and sacrifice is not over. "We will always remember those who have died, and we will honor their sacrifice by completing the mission," he said.
Bush stressed how important the transfer of sovereignty is to coalition aims in Iraq. "Decades of oppression destroyed every free institution in Iraq, but not the desire to live in freedom," he said. "The coalition is fully committed to Iraqi independence and fully committed to Iraq's national dignity."
When sovereignty is returned to the Iraqi people June 30, it will show the world that the coalition means what it says, the president said.
Bush provided assurances the coalition is not running out on Iraq. Troops will remain in the country to guarantee security and stand in as Iraqi security forces stand up and take over the mission in their country, he said.
Bush also promised a full accounting for "the cruel and disgraceful abuse of Iraqi detainees." He said the conduct is an insult to the Iraqi people and an affront to the most basic standards of morality and decency. "One basic difference between democracies and dictatorships is that free countries confront such abuses openly and directly," he said.
The president said those responsible for the Abu Ghraib prison abuses have caused harm to the coalition cause throughout the world. "It has given some a reason to question our cause and cast doubt on our motives," he said. "Yet who can doubt that Iraq is better for being free? Millions of Iraqis are grateful for the chance to live in freedom -- a chance made possible by the courage and sacrifice of the United States military."