President Bush went to his ranch Tuesday to rethink U.S. involvement in Iraq as his spokesman hailed a Baghdad court's decision upholding the death sentence for former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.
Saddam, who was deposed by the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, is to be hanged within 30 days.
"Today marks an important milestone in the Iraqi people's efforts to replace the rule of a tyrant with the rule of law," deputy White House press secretary Scott Stanzel told reporters aboard Air Force One to Texas, where Bush was to meet this week with his national security team.
Iraq's highest appeals court on Tuesday upheld the Nov. 5 sentence against Saddam for ordering the killing of 148 Shiites in Dujail in 1982, following an attempt on his life. Chief Judge Aref Shahin said the sentence must be implemented within 30 days, and could be carried out as early as Wednesday.
"Saddam Hussein has received due process and legal rights that he denied the Iraqi people for so long, so this is an important day for the Iraqi people," Stanzel said.
Bush, saddled with low approval ratings for his handling of Iraq, will host a National Security Council meeting on Thursday at the ranch, but is not expected to make any final decision on what he says will be a new way forward in Iraq.
Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley will attend the meeting.
Stanzel said there could be other National Security Council meetings before the president makes up his mind and delivers a speech to announce his decisions. The speech is expected before the State of the Union address on Jan. 23.
Bush is under mounting pressure to change U.S. involvement in Iraq where violence continued to escalate this month.
On Tuesday, the U.S. military reported that seven more American soldiers had died, pushing the U.S. military death toll for the month to 90. With five days remaining in the month, December is already the second deadliest month for the U.S. military this year, behind the 105 soldiers killed in October.
The latest deaths also brought the number of U.S. military members killed since the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003 to at least 2,978 — five more than the number killed in the Sept. 11 attacks in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania.
Stanzel said Bush continues to question advisers and think through the consequences of various U.S. actions. "Our forces, coalition forces in Iraq are continuing to take the fight to the enemy, and the president will announce a new way forward when he's comfortable" with his decision, he said.
Bush spent the Christmas holiday with his family at the Camp David presidential retreat in Maryland. When he arrived in Texas, about 50 well-wishers, squinting in the sunshine, welcomed him as he walked down the steps of the plane with first lady Laura Bush and her mother, Jenna Welch.