Vice President Dick Cheney saluted U.S. troops stationed near former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's hometown on Thursday and defended the Bush administration's recent decision to extend military deployments as "vital to the mission."
"The Army and the country appreciate the extra burden you carry," Cheney said.
He vowed to "stay on the offensive" despite growing public opposition in the United States to the war and efforts by the Democratic majority in Congress to restrict spending.
Cheney, who was defense secretary in the first Bush administration, spent the night on the base, about seven miles from Tikrit, Saddam's former hometown and an area populated mostly by minority-party Sunnis.
Cheney had breakfast with troops and participated in classified briefings from military commanders.
"It was a good report and I come away with even more appreciation for all you do, and greater confidence for the days ahead," Cheney said,
Between 10,000 and 12,000 troops are stationed at the base, which is located on the grounds of the former Iraqi Air Force Academy and is about 100 miles north of Baghdad, where Cheney spent Wednesday.
It was the first time Cheney spent the night in Iraq, and his whereabouts was closely guarded by the White House until Thursday's speech to the troops.
In other developments: Prime Minister Tony Blair, the U.S.'s main ally in the war in Iraq, said Thursday that he will step down as prime minister on June 27, after a decade in office in which he brokered peace in Northern Ireland and followed the United States to war in Afghanistan and Iraq. Blair, 54, will leave office as soon as a new leader is elected for the Labour Party. A majority of Iraqi lawmakers have endorsed a bill calling for a timetable for the withdrawal of foreign troops and demanding a freeze on the number of foreign troops already in the country, lawmakers said Thursday. The Iraqi bill, drafted by a parliamentary bloc loyal to anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, was signed by 144 members of the 275-member house, according to Nassar al-Rubaie, the leader of the Sadrist bloc. A judge on Thursday sentenced a British civil servant to six months in prison for leaking a classified memo about a meeting between Prime Minister Tony Blair and President Bush, in breach of the Official Secrets Act. A lawmaker's aide was sentenced to three months. David Keogh, 50, a government communications officer, was found guilty of "making a damaging disclosure" by passing on the secret memo about April 2004 talks between the two leaders in which Mr. Bush purportedly referred to bombing the Arab television station Al-Jazeera. A suicide truck bomb ripped through the Interior Ministry in the relatively peaceful Kurdish city of Irbil on Wednesday, killing 14 people and wounding dozens, officials said. Kurdish officials blamed al Qaeda-linked insurgents for the first major attack in the regional capital in more than three years. Four Iraqi journalists were killed Wednesday in a drive-by shooting near the northern oil-rich city of Kirkuk, police said. The four worked for the independent Raad media company, which publishes several weekly newspapers and monthly magazines that are generally pro-government and deal with politics, education and arts.A new report by the group Save the Children says Iraq's child mortality rate is up 150 percent since 1990. Mark Strassmann reports that thousands of Baghdad's children live on the streets, with little to protect them from the daily violence.
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