BALTIMORE, AUG. 20 -- Amid a sea of small American flags waved by 9,000 applauding Veterans of Foreign Wars delegates here today, President Bush knew he was in friendly territory.

And he told them exactly what they wanted to hear: that "our cause is right" in the Middle East, that U.S. troops and the "steadfast character of American will" can stop Iraq, that "I will hold the government of Iraq responsible for the safety and well being of American citizens held against their will."

The delegates, here for the 91st annual VFW convention, rose to their feet in spirited ovations when Bush entered the stage of the Baltimore Arena and when he left 28 minutes later. They interrupted his speech with applause at least two dozen times.

"He said exactly what I wanted to hear," said Billy Stewart, 58, of Tucson, a Korean War Navy veteran.

"I'm 100 percent behind him" said Jim Creglow, 66, of Ellenwood, Ga., a retired Army sergeant and veteran of Korea and Vietnam. "I hope to God he can resolve {the crisis} without a shooting war . . . . I feel he is taking every step to avoid it."

Bush's speech drew some of its strongest applause when, for the first time, he described the 2,500 Americans held in Kuwait as "hostages," a term the administration had avoided until Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein announced yesterday that he would release American and other foreign nationals if Bush withdrew U.S. forces from Saudi Arabia. Bush spurned the offer.

The foreign nationals in Kuwait "are in fact hostages," Bush said to cheers.

"He made it very clear," said Creglow after the speech. "Using American hostages as pawns, that's wrong."

Walter G. Hogan, commander in chief of the 2.1 million-member VFW, said he was "very pleased with {Bush's} strong remarks," especially his reference to Americans in Kuwait as hostages. "That is a true assessment of the situation" and is more than simply raising the level of rhetoric, Hogan said.

Asked whether the administration's switch from such terms as "restrictees" and "detainees" to "hostages" provides a further legal justification for military action against Iraq, Hogan said, "It indicates to Saddam Hussein that the president means business . . . . We don't like to to be threatened, and we want our hostages released."

Hogan, who met privately with Bush last week in Washington, said the president has done "an excellent job" in generating world support for U.S. intervention in the Middle East. "I think more countries will join," he said, "not only in the . . . naval blockade, but with ground troops."

Rank-and-file VFW members interviewed after the speech agreed. "Indeed, {Bush} does mean business," said Kevin Anderson, 54, a Vietnam veteran from Bismarck, N.D. He said his son-in-law, Ralph Heier, an Army sergeant stationed at Fort Bliss, Tex., has just shipped out with his unit to Saudi Arabia.

Even with this personal impact, Anderson said he favors Bush's decision for a massive military buildup in the Middle East.

Bush "is a firm believer that you maintain peace with strength," Anderson said. "The peace of the world is foremost in his mind."

"The president said whatever it takes, do it. I agree with that," said Ken Britter, 52, an Air Force veteran of Vietnam from Germantown. "If we need more {ground forces in the Middle East}, we ought to be committed to that."

Outside the arena, about a dozen anti-war demonstrators stood in the morning drizzle, protesting U.S. military deployment to the Middle East. But their chants were often drowned out by passing VFW delegates. "Go on home . . . . Get a job," the delegates shouted.