As of Thursday, at least 3,383 members of the U.S. military have died since the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.
Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates Vice President Dick Cheney told U.S. troops in Iraq on Thursday that he knows they're suffering hardships from extended deployments but the longer stays are "vital to the mission."
His words were greeted with restrained applause at a rally on a U.S. military base near Saddam Hussein's former hometown of Tikrit. On his second day in Iraq, Cheney also had classified meetings with U.S. military leaders and emerged repeating the words of the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, that "we can expect more violence" ahead.
From Iraq, Cheney flew to this Persian Gulf nation, the second stop on a trip that also will include visits to Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan. The purpose of his trip is to persuade Arab allies in the region to do more to help stabilize Iraq and promote ethnic reconciliation there.
Today, Cheney is to visit the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis, steaming in the gulf not far from here.
A couple thousand soldiers, clad in camouflage uniforms and with rifles slung on their shoulders, greeted the vice president at a mess hall at Camp Speicher, the desert post near Tikrit.
Specialist Eric Emo, 23, of Sedalia, Mo., whose Army unit is based in Fort Riley, Kan., said most of his fellow soldiers were unhappy about the deployment extensions, from the current 12 months to 15 months, but understand the need for it.
In terms of hostile activity, he said, "conditions around here have gotten a lot worse." He said there has been a particularly sharp increase in the number of roadside bombs.
One of the last warm-up acts before Cheney's appearance was a top 10 list of reasons to love Iraq. The No. 1 reason was: "Where else can you get a 15-month vacation and call it the luxury extension plan?" Officials said the three-month extension would affect nearly everyone on the base, where 10,000 to 12,000 U.S. troops are stationed.
Cheney took on the issue in his speech moments later.
"Many of you have had your deployments extended and that puts an unexpected hardship on you and your families," he said. "I want you to know the extension is vital to the mission. The Army and the country appreciate the extra burden that you carry."
Despite rising opposition in Washington to President Bush's military buildup, Cheney said terrorists have made Iraq the place they want to fight and "we will stay on the offensive. We will not sit back and wait to be hit again."
Maj. Gen. Benjamin R. "Randy" Mixon, commander of coalition forces in northern Iraq, said morale generally remains good "in terms of staying focused on the mission."
"They understand perfectly the reason the mission's been extended," Mixon said. He said the blanket three-month extensions helped take the guess work out of the policy.
"They want to know the exact day they're going back. That gives them something to focus on," he said.
Cheney is expected to press Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan to try to use their influence with Arab Sunnis in Iraq to help reduce sectarian tensions. At the same time, he has criticized Iran's growing influence among Shiites in Iraq and its possible role in providing sophisticated weapons to Iraqi insurgents to use against U.S. troops.
The vice president denied that the conflict in Iraq was fast developing into a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran.