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Bush soaks up triple birthday

President Bush marked aviation's birth, alongside the nation's and his own, with an Independence Day of gauzy, flag-draped ceremonies and a hearty defense of his repeated use of American military might.

"By killing innocent Americans, our enemies made their intentions clear to us," Bush said from a red-white-and-blue-bedecked stage set up on a sun-soaked field. "And since that September day, we have made our own intentions clear to them."

The United States, Bush said, "will not stand by and wait for another attack, or trust in the restraint and good intentions of evil men."

Bush repeatedly states that the U.S.-led global war on terror will not end any time soon. He also claimed that Iraq's former leader, Saddam Hussein, posed an urgent threat to the United States as justification for a pre-emptive war against that regime.

His administration is facing increasing questions about the United States' postwar occupation of Iraq, the mounting U.S. casualties there and the failure so far to find evidence of weapons of mass destruction.

To the cheers of the thousands of military and civilian revelers who braved intense heat to see the president on the Fourth of July, Bush said: "We will act whenever it is necessary to protect the lives and the liberty of the American people."

The day was a nonstop birthday celebration, as the former pilot from the Texas Air National Guard visited this Air Force base to commemorate the 100th anniversary of powered flight. After spending barely more than an hour on the ground here in Dayton, he returned to Washington for festivities honoring the nation's founding 227 years ago _ and to attend his own "surprise" birthday party.

First lady Laura Bush summoned a few friends for fireworks-watching from the White House balcony Friday night, in honor of Bush's 57th birthday on Sunday. Though intended as a surprise, Mrs. Bush spilled the beans about her plans during an online chat earlier in the week.

Bush came here as part of nearby Dayton's almost three-week extravaganza in honor of Wilbur and Orville Wright.

The brothers designed and built the airplane at their bicycle shop in Dayton. Their first powered flight came on Dec. 17, 1903, when Orville piloted the Wright Flyer for 120 feet and 12 seconds along the dunes of what was then part of Kitty Hawk, N.C.

"I wonder what Wilbur and Orville would have thought if they had seen that flying machine I came in on today?" Bush quipped about his impressive jet, Air Force One.

On the unused, flag-lined tarmac behind him stood several potent symbols of aviation's progress and the military Bush came to praise. Bush was flanked by a B-1B Stealth bomber, A-10 Thunderbolt "Warthog" and a F-117 Nighthawk.

Similar ceremonies are being held throughout the year in North Carolina _ which also lays claim to the "birthplace of aviation" tag.

It was his 10th visit to the political battleground state, which he won by four percentage points in 2000.

The spectators armed with binoculars, blankets, sun hats and plenty of water were thrilled with their visitor.

"It was just an overwhelming feeling to have him walk out, especially on the day we celebrate the nation's freedom," said Dawn Boyer of Enon, Ohio.

Democrats, though, merely saw political opportunism.

Dennis Lieberman, chairman of the local Montgomery County Democratic Party, said Bush was linking himself to the popularity of the military to cultivate votes. Bush hopes, he said, that "People who are not engaged in political thought in our country will support him because they support the military."