For many Washington area kids, the most important message delivered by White House press secretary Ari Fleischer yesterday wasn't the one dealing with U.N. involvement in a postwar Iraq or the one about the Northern Ireland peace process.

It was the announcement that the annual White House Easter Egg Roll will go on, although in a smaller, more exclusive fashion tailored to these trying times.

In a morning meeting with reporters, Fleischer said the April 21 event will be limited to military service members and their families. The Department of Defense will distribute 12,000 tickets to active-duty and reserve personnel only, Fleischer said.

"In some ways, it's a disappointment that it can't be open and available to all," Fleischer said. "On the other hand, the White House is pleased that members of the military will be received here."

In years past, up to 40,000 people have stood in line for hours outside the White House gates, waiting to enter and muscle hard-boiled eggs across the president's yard.

Fleischer said concerns over security prompted a "smaller-scale" celebration this year. The military-only egg roll, he said, will "honor those who are serving, the families who are sacrificing, the children who haven't seen their fathers. The White House regrets that it cannot be as large as it has been in the past. We look forward to returning to that practice."

Egg rolling at the executive mansion dates to 1878, when Rutherford B. Hayes opened the lawn of the White House to frolicking tykes. Children had conducted the post-Easter gambol on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol until members of Congress complained that they were ruining the landscaping.

The event was canceled in 1917 for World War I and 1942 for World War II. Two years ago, rain caused the egg roll's cancellation, the first time since 1984 that weather had washed it out.

Ashley Snee, a White House spokeswoman, said military personnel seeking tickets to the egg roll should go through their chain of command. She said no decision has been made about the future of a more recent South Lawn tradition: the White House T-ball league started by President Bush.

Madge Johansen, 79, of Jefferson attended her first White House Easter Egg Roll when she was about 8. Since then, she's been practically a fixture, taking her kids and grandkids for decades.

"I'm glad the president is doing it this way," she said yesterday. "The last few years, it has been so crowded that you could hardly walk from one place to another."

A determined Chantilly resident, Zachary DiGregorio, 5, scrambles for an egg in last year's post-Easter event on the lawn of the White House.