Bush cites progress in Iraq, vows to fix healthcare woes

President Bush on Tuesday sought support for his Iraq strategy before a friendly audience of veterans, while also pledging to correct the bureaucratic problems and substandard conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center that have hurt the care of wounded soldiers.

During a speech to the American Legion interrupted several times by applause, Bush emphasized that U.S. commanders need the "flexibility" to carry out their missions, a clear denunciation of congressional efforts to place operational and budgetary restrictions on the fiscal 2007 emergency supplemental spending bill.

Lawmakers have a "right" to express their opinions on the war, Bush said, but he warned against hamstringing operations. "They also have a responsibility to fund our warfighters," Bush said to a standing ovation.

Bush urged Congress to pass a clean spending bill without money for unrelated domestic programs. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., last week said she wanted to attach $4 billion for agriculture disaster relief, and other members want to attach non-defense-related money to the supplemental, which the military says it needs by April.

The president also reported that U.S. and Iraqi forces are beginning to make strides in securing Baghdad, a key goal of his new strategy. "It's still too early to judge the success of this operation," Bush said. "But even at this early hour there are some encouraging signs."

Three Iraqi brigades have been deployed to Baghdad, while U.S. and Iraqi forces have captured hundreds of extremists and located large weapons stockpiles, Bush said. Nonetheless, two suicide bombers today killed up to 90 people in Hillah, 60 miles south of Baghdad, according to news accounts.

On Monday, nine U.S. soldiers died in explosions north of Baghdad in the deadliest day for U.S. troops in nearly a month. Bush reiterated warnings against pulling out of Iraq too soon, stating that doing so would only spread a "contagion of violence" throughout Iraq and, ultimately, the Middle East. "For our country, this is a nightmare scenario," he said.

Addressing the Walter Reed scandal, Bush announced that former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, R-Kan., and Donna Shalala, former President Bill Clinton's Health and Human Services secretary, will lead a bipartisan presidential commission in a comprehensive review of military health care. He also has directed Veterans Affairs Secretary James Nicholson to lead a Cabinet-member task force to examine the immediate needs at Walter Reed and other facilities.

The government has a "moral obligation" to provide veterans with adequate health services, Bush said, declaring the conditions at Walter Reed are "unacceptable" and are "not going to continue." Nicholson said his task force would report back to Bush within 45 days.

Meanwhile, Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and other Senate Democrats called an afternoon news conference to accuse the Bush administration of a "massive failure" to provide care for soldiers wounded in Iraq.

The Democrats, according to talking points drafted for the event, planned to allege that the Defense and Veterans Affairs departments were not prepared to deal with traumatic brain injuries -- which senators called the "signature wound of the war." They also were prepared to say the administration provided inadequate treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Terry Kivlan contributed to this report.

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