Bush Says Drawdown Of Troops Possible - KFDA - NewsChannel 10 / Amarillo News, Weather, Sports

Bush Says Drawdown Of Troops Possible

(CBS/AP) President Bush, after hearing from top U.S. and Iraqi leaders, said Monday that some U.S. troops could be sent home if security conditions across Iraq continue to improve as they have in this former hotbed of Sunni insurgency.

But the president, flanked by Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, did not say how many troops could be withdrawn or how soon.

Mr. Bush spoke after hearing from Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, and U.S. ambassador to Baghdad Ryan Crocker, who are testifying to Congress next week assessing the president's troop buildup.

"Gen. Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker tell me if the kind of success we're now seeing continues, it will be possible to maintain the same level of security with fewer American forces," Mr. Bush said.

Later speaking before an assembly of troops at which he thanked them for their service, Mr. Bush said that his decision on troop levels would be based on a "calm assessment" of the military situation on the ground in Iraq, "not by a nervous reaction by Washington politicians to poll results in the media. It will be from a position of strength and success, not from a position of fear and failure.

"To do otherwise will embolden our enemies and make them more likely to attack us at home," he said.

Mr. Bush made the surprise visit to Iraq on Monday, using the war zone as a backdrop to argue his case that the buildup of U.S. troops is helping stabilizing the nation.

The president secretly flew 11 hours to Iraq as a showdown nears with Congress over whether his decision in January to order 30,000 more U.S. troops to Iraq is working.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates arrived ahead of Bush and conferred with senior U.S. officials, including Gen. Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker, before a session with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, President Jalal Talabani, and other top Iraqi officials from Baghdad.

To a large degree, the setting was the message: Bringing al-Maliki, a Shiite, to the heart of mostly Sunni Anbar province was intended to show the administration's war critics that the beleaguered Iraqi leader is capable of reaching out to Sunnis, who ran the country for years under Saddam Hussein.

Now in Iraq, CBS Evening News anchor Katie Couric traveled with Petraeus this week to Fallujah in Anbar province, once a stronghold of the insurgency, and reports the troop surge appears to have helped quell much of the violence there.

Mr. Bush has held up Anbar as an example of recent progress, especially on the security front, although the province is still economically deprived and not yet stable enough to turn over to full Iraqi control. The mission to Anbar prudently avoided touching down in Baghdad, where a week earlier a C-130 aircraft carrying three Senators and a Congressman was fired upon.

Next week, Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, and Crocker testify before Congress. Their assessment of the conflict, along with a progress report the White House must give lawmakers by Sept. 15, will help determine the next chapter of the war.

The United States cannot sustain the troop buildup indefinitely. And with Democrats calling for withdrawals and a rising U.S. death toll that has topped 3,700, the president is hardpressed to give al-Maliki much more time to find a political solution to the fighting.

There are now 162,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, including 30,000 that arrived since February as part of Mr. Bush's revised strategy to provide security so Iraqi leaders could build a unity government.

On the same day Mr. Bush made his visit, U.S. command announced the death Sunday of another U.S. soldier when a roadside bomb blew up next to his patrol near Baghdad, injuring three others. No names were released, pending notification of next of kin.

Mr. Bush stopped in Iraq ahead of his visit to Australia for an economic summit with Asia-Pacific leaders. The trip was a closely-held secret for obvious security reasons, although speculation about the trip arose late last month when first lady Laura Bush said she was staying home to tend to a pinched nerve in her neck.

CBS News White House Correspondent Peter Maer says the idea for the president to visit Anbar was hatched about six weeks ago. Officials confirm the drop-by is part of the administration's lead-up to next week's status report on the war. But Maer says officials brushed aside any suggestion that the trip is a publicity stunt.

"There are some people who might try to deride this trip as a photo opportunity," White House deputy press secretary Dana Perino said. "We wholeheartedly disagree."

Officials say the president, who also went to Iraq at Thanksgiving 2003 and in June 2006, wanted to meet personally not only with the commanders but also with Prime Minister al-Maliki and other Iraqi officials.

For security reasons, planning for the trip was "tightly held." Aides were told only on a "need to know" basis. And instead of flying to Andrews Air Force Base on his Marine One helicopter, the president slipped out a side door of the White House and went to Andrews by car, absent the usual motorcade.

The president was scheduled to leave for Australia on Monday, but he departed more than 12 hours before his announced time. Meanwhile, cell phones, computers, Blackberries and other electronic devices carried by members of the traveling White House pool were confiscated when reporters arrived at Andrews Air Force Base. Window shades on Air Force One were drawn as the plane rolled out of its hanger to the runway for take-off - for Anbar.

Mr. Bush was joined by his top advisers, including Secretary Rice and National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley. Defense Secretary Robert Gates was traveling there separately, and was joined by Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Adm. William Fallon, the top U.S. commander in the Middle East.

Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said the session at al-Asad would be the last big gathering of the president's war advisers with Iraqi leaders before he makes a decision on a way forward in Iraq.

The al Asad air base, the second-largest air base in Iraq and home to some 10,000 U.S. troops, is a parched, sunny, dusty place. Troops here say temperatures today are about average for this time of year - about 115 degrees. After his tarmac greeting, Mr. Bush, wearing a dark blue short-sleeved shirt and slacks, posed for pictures before being driven in a motorcade to a concrete building on base where a Marine gave him a short briefing.

Mr. Bush leaned slightly forward, both hands on a makeshift table, as the Marine with a pointer in hand gave an overview. About 20 troops in fatigues framed the president during the briefing (making for better pictures, no doubt).

The Marine was heard saying there was progress being made with Iraqi security forces in Anbar. They are handling more urban duties, allowing the Marines to hunt for insurgents in the desert. The Marine did say that there is a problem with the short home leaves-five months, which he said strains training, not to mention family life.

As we were being ushered out, Mr. Bush was heard to ask, "Morale? How is morale?"

"Very high, sir," was the response from the Marine, whose name is unknown.

From there, it was back to the heat and the motorcade. Mr. Bush was taken to a part of the base where troops from Regimental Combat Team-2, Marine Wing Support Combat Patrol had their vehicles - humvees and other light armored vehicles - in line. The Marines stood by the side of their vehicles as Mr. Bush came, shook hands and posed for pictures with them, sometimes asking aides to use the Marines' cameras for snap shots.

From there, the president left for his meeting with Petraeus, Crocker, and others. Mr. Bush is expected to make a joint statement later with Maliki, followed by a session with tribal leaders and members of Anbar's governing body. "I'm going to reassure them that America does not abandon our friends," he said.

The length of the stopover was anticipated to be about six hours.

The White House arranged Mr. Bush's trip at a pivotal juncture in the Iraq debate. Some prominent GOP lawmakers have broken with Mr. Bush on his war strategy, but so far, most Republicans have stood with the president. In exchange for their loyalty, they want to see substantial progress in Iraq soon.

Making his case before the Sept. 15 report deadline, Mr. Bush recently delivered a series of speeches to highlight how the temporary military buildup has routed out insurgents and foreign fighters.

The president has described what he calls "bottom-up" progress in Iraq and often cites a drop in violence in Anbar Province, once a hotbed of insurgency. The turnaround occurred when Sunni Arab leaders joined forces with U.S. troops to hunt down members of al Qaeda, although it's unclear whether they'll back a unified Iraqi government as well.

Critics of the war argue that while the troop buildup may have tamped down violence, the Iraqis are making almost no headway toward political reconciliation. They cite a handful of gloomy progress reports trickling out of Washington that show some success in curbing violence, but little progress toward political power-sharing agreements.

There are now 162,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, including 30,000 that arrived since February as part of Mr. Bush's revised strategy to provide security so Iraqi leaders could build a unity government.

This same weekend, British turned over control of Basra to Iraqi security forces, indicative of final preparations, according to CBS News correspondent Larry Miller, of Britain's withdrawal from Iraq, possibly as early as next month. Britain currently has 5,500 troops in the country.

Mr. Bush met on Friday with his top military chiefs at the Pentagon who expressed concern about a growing strain on American troops and their families from long and often multiple combat tours.

During Mr. Bush's last trip to Iraq, on June 13, 2006, he met with Maliki to "look him in the eye" and voice his administration's commitment to the fledgling Iraqi government.

"I have expressed our country's desire to work with you, but I appreciate you recognize the fact that the future of the country is in your hands," Mr. Bush said.

"The decisions you and your cabinet make will determine as to whether or not your country succeeds, can govern itself, can defend itself, can sustain itself," he added.

Since then, more than 1,200 U.S. troops have been killed in Iraq.

Still, early indications are that the president intends to stick with his current approach - at least into 2008 - despite pressure from the Democratic-led Congress and some prominent Republicans. Right now, the White House is working to keep Republican members of Congress in the president's fold to prevent Democrats from amassing the strength to slash war funds or mandate immediate troop withdrawals.

In a new book by journalist Robert Draper, "Dead Certain," President Bush - mindful of the discomfort the Iraq War is causing GOP (and some Democratic) presidential candidates, is quoted as saying that one of his remaining goals for his term in office is "to get us in a position where the presidential candidates will be comfortable about sustaining a presence" in Iraq and "stay longer."
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