WASHINGTON, March 26 (UPI) -- President George W. Bush arrived Wednesday afternoon at Camp David where he and British Prime Minister Tony Blair will hold talks on humanitarian relief and post-war reconstruction efforts inside Iraq.
The president and Secretary of State Colin Powell will hold a series of meetings with Blair at the presidential retreat in the Maryland mountains on Thursday. Blair was scheduled to have dinner with them before beginning talks, the White House said.
The two leaders are to hold a joint press conference from Camp David at 11 a.m. EST Thursday.
Great Britain has been the United States' closest ally and largest coalition partner. Blair supported Bush in the effort to disarm Saddam despite intense political pressure from members of his own party in Parliament and a number of large anti-war demonstrations.
The discussions get underway as coalition forces in Iraq face their toughest opposition yet. As blinding sandstorms raged across Iraq Wednesday, U.S.-led forces continued to push slowly toward Baghdad against unexpectedly stiff resistance, with the prospect of even tougher encounters as they neared the Iraqi capital.
Bush left Washington early Wednesday for MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Fla., headquarters of the U.S. Central Command, which is running the invasion of Iraq. He warned that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's "day of reckoning" was near and vowed that the United States would be relentless in its pursuit of victory as military forces continued their push across the desert toward Baghdad.
"We cannot know the duration of this war, but we are prepared for the battle ahead. We cannot predict the final day of the Iraqi regime, but I can assure you -- and I assure the long-suffering people of Iraq -- there will be a day of reckoning for the Iraqi regime, and that day is drawing near," Bush said.
Speaking in his most passionate and fiery tone since the start of the war one week ago, Bush addressed hundreds of cheering and applauding military personnel and their families, along with U.S. and coalition commanders.
"Millions of Americans are proud of our military, and so am I," Bush said.
Aboard Air Force One, en route to Florida, White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer told reporters that the president would say that the war was running ahead of schedule, but at the last minute that assessment was dropped from Bush's speech.
The change came as defense officials rejected criticism that they had underestimated Saddam's forces -- in particular the Republican Guard and his paramilitary unit, Fedayeen Saddam -- a militia whose name literally translates as "those ready to sacrifice themselves for Saddam."
Meanwhile, British troops of the 7th Armored Brigade -- who earned the nickname Desert Rats during World War II -- were settling in around Basra where their path into the city was blocked by Iraqi irregulars. An uprising by some of the 1.5 million residents against Saddam Hussein's militias -- first reported by British military intelligence -- was said to be continuing Wednesday, although there was no independent confirmation.
A British Broadcasting Corp. reporter embedded with British marines south of Basra said that a column of Iraqi armor, as many as 120 vehicles strong, had emerged from the city earlier in the day, and was being attacked by aircraft and artillery.
Washington, the United Nations and the European Union are thinking beyond the collapse of the Saddam regime to Iraq's recovery and reconstruction. Humanitarian aid -- and the question of who is going to supply what -- is the subject of intense negotiation at the United Nations and the EU headquarters in Brussels.
The White House on Tuesday said the United States was providing $105 million to international aid agencies to help Iraqis secure food, water and medical aid as coalition forces continue their effort to oust the regime of Saddam Hussein.
"Protecting innocent civilians is a central commitment of our war plan. Our enemy in this war is the Iraqi regime, not the people who have suffered under it. As we bring justice to a dictator, today we started bringing humanitarian aid in large amounts to an oppressed land," Bush said at MacDill.
The administration's move to provide assistance for civilians caught in the war zone is similar to efforts to provide help during the conflict in Afghanistan, a so-called "butter and bullets" campaign.
The World Food Program would receive $60 million of the total, while $21 million would go to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, $10 million to the International Committee of the Red Cross and $8 million to the International Organization of Migration, the White House said.
There have been problems moving humanitarian assistance into the region. Umm Qasr, the only seaport along Iraq's southern coast, was only secured by allied forces on Wednesday. Having seized the port, coalition forces swept the harbor for mines after two Iraqi tugboats carrying explosives were interdicted. A British vessel, the Sir Galahad, stocked with food and approximately 1,500 tons of water, was ready to dock. Australia sent two more ships, each filled with 50,000 tons of wheat, which were standing by, waiting to unload.
The president this week asked Congress to approve a $74.7 billion war budget sent to Capitol Hill as a supplemental appropriations request. The request includes $53 billion for operational activities such as moving troops into the region, returning them home and replenishing supplies and munitions.
Another $8 billion would go toward international operations and aid to countries such as Jordan, Israel, Turkey, Pakistan, Egypt, Afghanistan, the Philippines and Colombia. Of that figure, $3.5 billion would pay for humanitarian relief, reconstruction and repairs to damaged oil fields.
Bush delivered his speech at MacDill as coalition forces staged an intensified bombing campaign of Baghdad and hit Iraq's main television station and key communication facilities. The military action came a day after coalition officials said they were poised to seize the capital despite a severe sandstorm, and were engaged in one of the largest firefights of the conflict so far.
Bush said that in the early days of the mission, dubbed Operation Iraqi Freedom, U.S. Special Forces helped secure airfields, bridges and oil fields. He said that American pilots and cruise missiles had struck vital military targets with "lethal precision" and destroyed a base in northern Iraq suspected of being used for chemical warfare.
"We have moved over 200 miles to the north, toward Iraq's capital, in the last three days. And the dictator's major Republican Guard units are now under direct and intense attack. Day by day, Saddam Hussein is losing his grip on Iraq. Day by day, the Iraqi people are closer to freedom," the president said.
Bush paid tribute to members of the coalition forces killed during combat, saying that people across the country were praying their families and loved ones find comfort and grace in their sorrow. Twenty-two U.S. soldiers have been killed and 14 are reported missing.
The president then offered a prayer for them. "We pray that God will bless and receive each of the fallen. And we thank God that liberty found such brave defenders," he said.