Source AP ©

Laura Bush meets with US servicemen

Hundreds of American servicemen and women gathered at an air terminal Thursday. Laura Bush, U.S. first lady, thanked them for their service on behalf of the nation, because due to their efforts the situation in Iraq improves.

"We are seeing signs of progress as thousands of Iraqis are stepping up to work with coalition soldiers," Mrs. Bush told the some 700 members of the different services of the U.S. military who were either coming from the war torn country or heading there.

"Iraqis are providing intelligence and information on al-Qaida and other violent groups in their neighborhoods and bringing security and stability to their communities," and local tribes who were fighting Americans a year ago were now cooperating with them and joining the Iraqi political process, she said.

Civilian deaths from suicide bombings and sectarian Sunni-Shiite violence in Iraq have dropped gradually in recent months. Some of that country's tribal chiefs and former insurgents have joined American forces against al-Qaida.

The heavily used Kuwaiti air base, 37 kilometers (23 miles) from the border, is key to providing support for coalition troops serving in Iraq. About 700,000 U.S. personnel move through the base every year. This small oil-rich state has been a major ally of Washington since a U.S.-led coalition ended a seven-month Iraqi occupation of it in 1991.

The troops greeted the first lady with thunderous applause when she entered the air-conditioned terminal. "I am the one who should be applauding you for what you've done," Mrs. Bush, in a gray pant suit, surrounded by men and women in uniform, said.

"I'm here to tell you that the American people stand with our troops," the first lady said, drawing cheers from the crowd. "No matter what you might read in the newspapers, people do appreciate the gift of freedom," she said. "If you want the real measure of how Americans feel about you and your mission, listen to the love and pride in the phone calls of your families, read encouragement in the e-mails from your friends," the first lady added.

Mrs. Bush did not touch on the issue of withdrawing the troops from Iraq, but she told them she and the president were praying "for an end to the violence everywhere so the future generations can grow up in a world of peace, a world that you shaped."

Public sentiment to bring the soldiers home has been growing and Democrats have been unsuccessful in pushing President George W. Bush's administration for a pullout deadline.

Mrs. Bush has been on a tour in the Middle East mainly aimed at raising awareness over breast cancer. She left from the air base to Jordan where she is expected to conduct closed-door talks with King Abdullah II and launch a breast cancer screening center financed by the U.S. government.

Previous stops on the trip included Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

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