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CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. (AP) -- President Bush tried to comfort relatives of soldiers killed in Iraq Thursday while bracing U.S. troops and the country for further sacrifice as forces approach Baghdad.
In his third straight to a military installation since the war began last month, Bush chose the base that has been hardest-hit by combat deaths. At least 13 of the Americans killed since the war started two weeks ago were from Camp Lejeune, N.C., and six more from that Marine Corps base are missing.
Bush was meeting with five families of Marines lost in the 2-week-old war.
"You have families who are in the early moments of their grief," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said. "It's going to be tough, it's going to be emotional, but from the president's point of view, it's an important meeting. It's part of the duties of being commander in chief."
Bush also was giving a speech to 20,000 people, 12,000 of them Marines, honoring the commitment of those fighting for their country. He was reminding Marines and the public that more sacrifices are to come, White House officials said. Bush also was renewing his efforts to keep public attention on the mission of disarming Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
The outdoor venue for the speech -- Goettge Memorial Field -- was named in honor of Marines who have died in past conflicts. Throngs of people -- many in camouflage fatigues and women pushing baby strollers -- lined the sidewalks of the base before Bush's arrival.
Flags bearing yellow ribbons fluttered from lamp posts.
Some military spouses at Camp Lejeune hope Bush will do more than offer encouragement.
Bush bristled last week when a reporter asked him how long the war will take. "However long it takes," the commander in chief answered.
But that is precisely the question on the mind of Keri-Lee Johnson, a stay-at-home mother raising a 7-month-old, who wants the president to tell her how long her husband will be away at war.
Staff Sgt. Shawn Johnson left Feb. 7.
His wife wants Bush's frank answer on how long the war will last -- "not the standard 'It's going great' opinion," she said.
Other spouses simply appreciate the gesture of support. Stephanie Gonzales said goodbye to her husband seven months ago.
She and Cpl. Ramon Gonzales were middle school sweethearts in Fort Wayne, Ind.
"I go through the complete array of emotions from being scared to being very proud, proud of who I am, proud of my husband, proud of my country," Gonzales said.
Like the other recent base trips, one to Florida, one to Pennsylvania, North Carolina is important to Bush's re-election. It is his seventh trip to North Carolina since he became president.
Bush took a Democrat who wants his job with him: Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, who is running for the White House. Sen. Elizabeth Dole, R-N.C., also traveled aboard Air Force One. Bush campaigned heavily for her last year.
(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)