FORT BENNING, Ga. — President Bush sought a friendly audience and a patriotic backdrop yesterday to continue to make his case for sending 21,000 more troops to Iraq, but he received only tepid applause at this Army base, where the commanding general forbade soldiers from talking to reporters.
The president’s speech was similar to the national address he delivered Wednesday night, but he used firm language when speaking about what is coming for insurgents in Iraq. He also hailed efforts by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki against militias responsible for continual waves of sectarian killings in Iraq.
“Yesterday, the resolve was seen when Prime Minister Maliki made it clear that illegal militias, including the Mahdi Army, have a choice to make: either lay down your arms or face justice,” Mr. Bush said. “That’s the kind of leadership that the Iraqi people expect, and that’s the kind of leadership I expect, and the American people expect.”
He added, “Our support is not open-ended. If the Iraqis demonstrate a willingness to fight for a better future, we’ll help them. It’s in our interests that we do so. Not only do we expect to see action militarily, as I mentioned, we expect to see them fulfill the benchmarks that they laid out for their people.”
Mr. Bush visited Fort Benning because the base will send a combat brigade to Iraq earlier than planned, by March instead of late May or early June. The brigade has done two tours in Iraq, and on its last yearlong deployment, in 2005, 34 soldiers from the 4,000-member unit were killed.
In his speech, Mr. Bush also reiterated the warning he gave in his prime-time address: His planned troop surge would not be a quick fix.
“The new strategy is not going to yield immediate results. It’s going to take awhile,” he said. “The American people have got to understand that suicide bombings won’t stop immediately.”
Before meeting with families, Mr. Bush watched as five members of a parachute team floated to the ground in a demonstration of base training.
“We’re proud of you,” he told the men.
Earlier in the day, the president awarded the Medal of Honor to the late Marine Cpl. Jason Dunham of Scio, N.Y., who covered a hand grenade in Iraq two years ago, saving the lives of his comrades. He is the second Iraq war soldier to receive the prestigious award.
“I’ve lost my son, but he became a part of history,” Cpl. Dunham’s mother, Deb, said after the ceremony, which drew tears from Mr. Bush. “It still hurts as a parent, but the pride that you have from knowing he did the right thing makes it easier.”
The 300 soldiers who, with their families, heard the afternoon speech were banned by Maj. Gen. Walter Wojdakowski, commandant of the 32,000-soldier base, from talking to reporters. Journalists were barred from re-entering Freedom Hall, where Mr. Bush delivered the speech, or from approaching soldiers outside the hall.
While the president met with family members of 25 soldiers from the base who were killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, several reporters waited for word from the base on whether the ban would be lifted. A senior administration official said, “We have no control over that.”
This article was based in part on wire-service reports.