US President George W. Bush signed a record US$401.3-billion defense bill on Monday that includes a 4.15-percent raise for troops as the Iraq occupation puts increasing strain on soldiers and their families.
"In this time of war, our military is facing greater sacrifice," Bush said as he signed the legislation in a ceremony at the Pentagon.
"Your men and women in uniform are facing longer separations. Your families are feeling great pride and sometimes they worry," he said.
Since Bush declared major combat over in Iraq on May 1, 185 soldiers have died as guerrilla attacks have escalated. The administration has extended military deployments in Iraq to a full year and is mustering tens of thousands of regular and reserve troops for rotation into Iraq next year.
Besides raising military wages, the defense authorization bill for fiscal 2004 will continue US$225 per month in imminent danger pay and US$250 in a monthly family separation allowance for troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, including tens of thousands of reserve and national guard troops.
The Pentagon in August said it had considered altering the compensation plan for soldiers in the two countries, but denied in the face of criticism that it intended to cut their pay.
Last year's defense authorization bill totaled US$393 billion and included a 4.1-percent raise for troops.
This year's bill clears the way for the Air Force to acquire 100 Boeing BA.N refueling aircraft, expands veterans' benefits and allows research on new types of nuclear weapons.
It also includes US$9.1 billion for ballistic missile defense and US$12 billion for the purchase of Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force fighters as well as further development of a Joint Strike Fighter program.
Separate legislation is needed to actually spend the money authorized by the bill that Bush signed.
After he signed the measure, Bush left Washington for Fort Carson, Colorado, to hold a rare meeting with families of US troops who have died in Iraq. In a speech to troops at the base, he thanked the families of fallen soldiers and said "our prayers are with you."
Bush has come under increasing criticism for not attending any funerals of soldiers killed in attacks in Iraq and for barring media coverage of the return of dead service members to the US.
Retired General Wesley Clark, a candidate for the Democrat presidential nomination, accused Bush of "the kind of cover-up tactics we saw during Vietnam."
White House aides say Bush has met privately with families of war casualties and writes letters to the families of each soldier who has died.
In Senate testimony last week, Pentagon officials acknowledged reports of morale problems in some units serving in Iraq, and said the Army Reserve had fallen short of its goals for re-enlisting existing members.
"The longer we operate at the tempos we have, the greater the challenge will be in this," said Army Chief of Staff General Peter Schoomaker.
Longer-than-expected call-ups have also pulled many reservists away from regular jobs and fueled discontent among families.
Bush said US troops were "standing between our country and grave danger."
"You're standing for order and hope and democracy in Afghanistan and Iraq. You're standing up for the security of all free nations, and for the advance of freedom," he told the military audience at the Pentagon.