ULAN BATOR, Mongolia – President Bush, buffeted by unrelenting criticism at home over Iraq, on Monday saluted Mongolia's "fearless warriors" for helping his embattled effort to establish democracy in the heart of the Middle East.
"Mongolia and the United States are standing together as brothers in the cause of freedom," Bush told Mongolian troops and lawmakers in a speech at the Government House.
After two days in China partly aimed at nudging that communist country toward greater freedoms, Bush's stop here -- the first by a U.S. president -- was meant to showcase the first communist country in Asia to turn toward democracy. Mongolia discarded communism 15 years ago; it holds democratic elections and allows Western-style freedoms.
"You are an example of success for the region and for the world," Bush said. "As you build a free society in the heart of Central Asia, the American people stand with you."
Bush spent about four hours in this land of vast deserts, plains and mountains on the last leg of an eight-day, four-country swing through Asia that included stops in Japan, South Korea and China. After the 13-minute speech, Bush ventured just outside the capital to sip fermented mare's milk and listen to the traditional Central Asian art of throat singing.
"Really special," he commented.
Bush was due to arrive at the White House Monday night.
Visiting what is known proudly here as the coldest capital in the world in wintertime, thick pollution hung over the city as his motorcade passed barren mountains, soldiers at attention and thousands of curious but mostly impassive locals. He was greeted at the Government House by flower-toting children in traditional Mongolian robes and soldiers in bright red, blue and yellow overcoats.
"Such an honor to be here," Bush told Mongolian President Nambaryn Enkhbayar. They met inside a ger, a white tent, in a courtyard of the government building.
Gers are round, easily packable felt tents that are well-suited to Mongolia's harsh climate and nomadic culture. The ornate one used by the presidents had a red-and-yellow design on the roof and red wood doors. Inside were red brocade chairs, tapestries, Oriental carpets and a towering, white statue of Genghis Khan, the legendary horseman-warrior and country founder whose empire once stretched as far south as Southeast Asia and west to Hungary.
Enkhbayar is from the Mongolian People's Revolutionary Party, the former communist party now committed to free elections and capitalism. Bush's brief meeting with Enkhbayar preceded another with Prime Minister T. Elbegdor, from the rival Democratic Party.
Bush played to Mongolia's pride in its military by publicly recognizing two soldiers who gunned down a suicide truck bomber before he could strike a mess tent in Iraq. Mongolia's force of about 160 in Iraq makes it, with its population of just 2.8 million, the third-largest contributor per capita to the coalition.
"U.S. armed forces are proud to serve beside such fearless warriors," Bush said.
The president's warm reception in this country eager for U.S. assistance and attention brought some relief from the unrelenting and acrid debate at home about his policies in Iraq. The Mongolian people, Bush said, "claimed their freedom 15 years ago and are now standing with others across the world to help them do the same."
But the transition from 70 years of Soviet domination to free markets meant the end of economic help from Moscow. That, in turn, brought crushing poverty and its accompanying social ills. Foreign investment is scant, and its schools and health system are in decline. But the economy grew nearly 11 percent last year and the country is rich in copper and gold.
Before leaving Washington, Bush bluntly said corruption is a problem in Mongolia. He was more diplomatic on the ground, gently pressing lawmakers to pass anti-corruption legislation needed to bring it in line with a United Nations treaty against corruption it ratified this year. Enkhbayar was elected in May on a platform of fighting corruption.
Bush noted that Mongolia is one of 16 countries that will share $1 billion in U.S. aid as part of an incentive program for poor countries that show a commitment to economic and government reform. The president also brought a gift -- $11 million in aid to improve Mongolia's military forces through a separate program for nations allied with the U.S.-led war on terror.