FORT HOOD, Tex., April 12 -- President Bush on Tuesday praised soldiers stationed at the largest U.S. military base for their service in Iraq, saying the 146 soldiers from here who died and many more who were injured made sacrifices for the worthy causes of liberating a nation, diminishing the threat of terrorism and spreading democracy in the Middle East.
An audience of 25,000 soldiers, some recently returned from Iraq and others soon to ship out for a first or second tour, gathered under a spring sun to listen, politely and often quietly, to Bush compare their efforts toppling Saddam Hussein's statue in Baghdad to the fall of the Berlin Wall. It was, Bush said, "one of the great moments in the history of liberty."
The president, greeted by flag-waving soldiers, many accompanied by wives and children, was here to mark the two-year anniversary of the liberation of Baghdad this past weekend. Bush delivered what has become a fairly standard speech about what the military is accomplishing in Iraq and why, he says, the effort will go down in history as a turning point in the twin campaigns to preemptively fight terrorism and spread democracy in the Middle East.
"You are making possible the peace of Iraq, and you are making possible the security of free nations," he said. ". . . The establishment of a free Iraq at the heart of the Middle East will be a crushing defeat to the forces of tyranny and terror, and a watershed event in the global democratic revolution."
What started more than two years ago as a campaign to overthrow Hussein has morphed into what the president now describes as one battle in a much larger global effort to plant democracy and freedom where dictators and oppression rule. Bush's accusation that Hussein harbored stockpiles of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, which has been discredited, was discarded from his Iraq speeches long ago.
Increasingly, the president uses speeches to troops to praise American ideals and send a signal to other nations the administration is targeting for democratic change. "As the Iraq democracy succeeds, that success is sending a message from Beirut to Tehran that freedom can be the future of every nation," Bush said here. The administration is working publicly and privately to encourage democratic forces in Iran, Lebanon and elsewhere to demand free elections.
More than 140,000 U.S. troops are still serving in Iraq, though that could change in the next year or so. Some military and administration officials say Bush could begin withdrawing a number of troops by early 2006, assuming the Iraqi military gets better equipped and trained.
As usual, Bush made no promises of a pullout to the troops. But he said security operations in Iraq are "entering a new phase," in which the 150,000 members of the Iraq military, for the first time, outnumber U.S. troops in Iraq. "Like free people everywhere, Iraqis want to be defended and led by their own countrymen," he said. "We will help them achieve this objective so Iraqis can secure their own nation. And then our troops will come home with the honor they have earned."
Critics charge that the number of Iraqi troops might be inflated and includes police officers and others with limited skills. Government officials have offered varying -- and sometimes conflicting -- estimates of Iraqi troop strength since the training process began.
"In the last two years you have accomplished much," Bush said, "yet your work isn't over." That is part of the reason the president chose Fort Hood, a short flight from his ranch in Crawford, for the two-year commemoration. The event, originally scheduled for last Thursday, was postponed because of Pope John Paul II's death.
With troops scheduled to head out soon, Bush ate fried chicken and macaroni and cheese with members of the 1st Cavalry Division before meeting for nearly three hours in private with the families of 33 soldiers from Fort Hood killed in the Iraq campaign. Nearly 17,000 1st Cavalry soldiers recently returned from Iraq; the 1st Infantry Division is about to ship out.
White House press secretary Scott McClellan said the exchanges were often emotional and some families expressed concern to the president about the level of government assistance they were receiving. "We did make some notes of the concerns . . . and we will be following up on those," he said.
In his speech, Bush thanked the soldiers several times for serving and praised the families for their sacrifice. "It isn't easy being the one left behind when a loved one goes off to war," Bush said, as a few wives squeezed their husbands, and as children waved flags and scooted around.