Members of the 3rd Infantry, which suffered more casualties than any other American military division in Iraq, stood at attention in desert fatigues and black berets as Mr. Bush strode onto a stage at Fort Stewart. There, an estimated 15,000 troops, families and area citizens burst into cheers. The troops repeatedly yelled "hoo-ah," a universal Army response, in approval of his message.
The president said his administration has three current missions in Iraq — to eradicate terrorists, urge other nations to help stabilize the war-torn nation and oversee an orderly transfer of power to the Iraqi people.
"Every man, woman and child in Iraq can be certain of this: The old regime is gone and the regime is never coming back," Mr. Bush said.
As he spoke, military commanders in Iraq were sorting out details of the deadliest friendly fire incident since the end of major fighting. U.S. soldiers mistakenly opened fire on a group of Iraqi policemen chasing bandits Friday, killing eight Iraqis and wounding seven others, witnesses said.
The president presented the Presidential Unit Citation — the highest award given to a military unit for exceptional valor — to the division that sent 16,500 troops to the Persian Gulf.
More than 40 soldiers from the 3rd Infantry and affiliated units at Fort Stewart have died in the war. Members of the division served between six and 11 months in Iraq. The last of its troops returned home earlier this month.
Mr. Bush presented the citation to Capt. Vern Tubbs, who wrote the president a letter from Iraq saying he saw firsthand the Iraqis people's desire for liberty. The experience of the 3rd Infantry, however, epitomizes Mr. Bush's frustration in stabilizing Iraq and bringing U.S. troops home.
After Saddam was ousted in April, the 3rd Infantry thought it would be going home, but soldiers were kept in Iraq longer because of a surge in violence against coalition troops in and around the capital. Then, after Mr. Bush declared that the heaviest fighting was over on May 1, the soldiers' families started making welcome home banners out of bedsheets.
But on May 29, they learned that most of the 3rd Infantry would be staying through August. U.S. commanders said they tapped the division to crush pockets of Iraqi resistance and to keep order. Then in July, the deployment of thousands of 3rd Infantry soldiers was extended again because of continuing attacks against coalition fighters.
Back home, their families and friends rode an emotional rollercoaster.
The president's speech countered criticism from Democrats, who say the administration underestimated the task of securing Iraq after major military operations ceased. Other critics cite rising violence against U.S troops, the death toll, which ticks up nearly every day and a lack of help from other nations.
Nearly 300 U.S. soldiers have died in the war; more than 150 on or since May 1 when Mr. Bush declared that major combat operations in Iraq had ended.
The administration wants more international troops, but officials have been seeking to lower expectations that large offers of foreign troops are forthcoming, preferring to cast the number somewhere between 10,000 and 15,000.
Secretary of State Colin Powell will be in Switzerland on Saturday to discuss with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and the foreign ministers of Russia, China, France and Britain, a draft U.S. resolution to broaden international involvement in Iraq.
On his Air Force One flight to Georgia, Mr. Bush called the prime minister of Sweden to express America's condolences for the violent stabbing death of foreign minister Anna Lindh. He also talked with President Nestor Kirchner of Argentina to congratulate him on Argentina reaching agreement with the International Monetary Fund on the outlines of a three-year, $21 billion debt refinancing package.
After his speech to the troops, Mr. Bush was traveling to Mississippi to attend a fund-raiser for Haley Barbour, who is challenging Democratic Gov. Ronnie Musgrove for governor.
Later in the day, Mr. Bush was to be in Houston to help raise an estimated $1 million for the Power Center — a one-stop community development center houses an array of social services.