CAMP BONDSTEEL, Yugoslavia (AP) _ President Bush ventured into the recovering Kosovo province Tuesday, telling U.S. troops he hopes to speed the day when peace is self-sustaining here and they can go home.
The president brought with him a defense spending bill passed by Congress that includes $1.9 billion to boosts pay, benefits and health care for American troops. He signed it before thousands of cheering soldiers in green camouflage fatigues.
Bush told the troops of Camp Bondsteel that their mission in Kosovo is vital to block those who use religious and ethic differences to perpetuate violence. He said America's diverse military serves as an example of peaceful coexistence for Serbs and ethnic Albanians in Kosovo.
``It's a rebuke to the ethnic intolerance and narrow nationalism that brought us here in the first place,'' Bush said. ``We must not allow difference to be a license to kill, and vulnerability an excuse to dominate.''
The United States' goal, Bush said, ``is to hasten the day when peace is self-sustaining, when local democratically elected authorities can assume full responsibility, and when NATO forces can go home.''
But until then, Bush said, the soldiers play a pivotal role in staunching the flow of arms to rebels who seek to incite violence in neighboring Macedonia.
``Kosovo must not be a safe haven for insurgents elsewhere,'' Bush said. The United States, the president vowed, will work with NATO allies in pursuing freedom and tolerance ``from Kosovo to Kashmir.''
Bush has a long-held ambivalence toward peacekeeping operations, such as the roughly 42,000 military personnel deployed in Kosovo by 16 NATO countries. As a candidate, he held that American troops should intervene in overseas conflicts only to stop war, not to keep peace, and those assertions raised alarm that Bush might withdraw the 5,000 U.S. troops from Kosovo.
As he did earlier in his European trip, Bush pledged that the United States will not back out of its NATO peacekeeping commitments in the Balkans. ``There's still a lot of work to do,'' he said. ``We came in together and we will leave together.''
But in a statement, Bush said while U.S. forces' involvement in Kosovo is essential now, it ``should not be indefinite.'' He stressed the need to speed along the transfer of public safety duties from combat forces to ``specialized units, international police and, ultimately, local authorities.''
Bush and first lady Laura Bush took a small Air Force jet from Rome to Kosovo's capital Pristina, then went by helicopter to the sprawling Bondsteel base camp.
Clad comfortably in a gray shirt and black slacks, the president walked up a small hut and signed a guest book for visiting VIPs. He then received a briefing from Lt. Gen. Thorstein Skiaker, the Norwegian commander of the KFOR peacekeeping force, and Hans Haekkerrup, the Danish U.N. administrator in Kosovo.
Bush joked with the 3,000 soldiers who gathered in a base courtyard, telling them he planned a run up nearby Radar Hill. He called out the various units by their nicknames, such as the 101st Airborne Division's Screaming Eagles.
``It's always a proud moment for the commander in chief to see the troops who uphold the values of our country,'' Bush said. ``Especially here, seeing you in a foreign land, brings home the true meaning of the sacrifices you make for our freedom.''
The visit was Bush's first to an overseas peacekeeping mission, and the soldiers seemed happy to see him. The commander, Brig. Gen. William C. David, called the president ``a P.T.-running fool'' _ a reference to physical training _ and gave him a running jacket with military insignia.
``He acted like the president of everyone,'' said Army Spc. Raul Davis, 27, of Los Angeles. ``Sometimes you don't feel appreciated here. I'm glad he appreciates us and all the hard work we do.''
Before flying back to Rome for his return flight to Washington at the end of a weeklong European trip, Bush lunched in the camp mess hall with five soldiers at a table covered with a blue tablecloth.
Walking through the chow line, Bush passed a frosted chocolate cake that read, ``Welcome President Bush _ peace in Kosovo.'' He ordered fried chicken and macaroni and cheese, and avoided his favorite peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches. ``Trying to work off the poundage,'' Bush said.
Kosovo _ a province of the main Yugoslav republic, Serbia _ has been run by the United Nations and NATO since Serb troops left two years ago after a NATO bombing campaign to halt Yugoslavia's crackdown on the ethnic Albanian majority.
Tens of thousands of Serbs remained after some 200,000 of their compatriots fled, and they want Kosovo to remain a southern Serbia province. Ethnic Albanians demand independence.