Bush cites progress in talks on Iraq

Times Staff Writer

President Bush said Thursday that he was "making good progress" toward redrawing his strategy for Iraq, a plan aides said would encompass economic and political elements as well as new security procedures to stem sectarian violence and counter a thriving insurgency.

It appeared increasingly likely, but not certain, that the latest effort to shore up the Iraq campaign would include sending additional U.S. troops there, and that the president would launch his strategy in a speech to the nation when Congress returns to Washington next Thursday or soon after.

Democratic leaders reiterated their opposition to any increase in the number of U.S. troops in Iraq.

Bush held a morning-long meeting with key members of the National Security Council at his office on his Texas ranch, continuing the discussions at lunch. Before making final decisions, Bush said, he wants to have additional consultations, including with members of Congress.

The administration has attached great importance not only to the substance of the plan but to the way it is presented to -- and received by -- the public, a tacit acknowledgment of the continuing decline in popular support for the war. Officials also are concerned with the impact Congress could have on the president's ability to conduct the war once Democratic majorities take control of the agenda in the House and Senate.

Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), incoming chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said Thursday that most Democrats would oppose any plan calling for a "surge" in the number of U.S. troops.

"The main direction has got to be troop reductions," Levin said on CNN, standing by what he said was the primary Democratic proposal to begin withdrawing troops in "four to six months."

In a three-minute statement to reporters at his ranch after the morning meeting, Bush pledged to "reach out to Congress."

"I fully understand it's important to have both Republicans and Democrats understanding the importance of this mission," he said. Bush was joined by Vice President Dick Cheney; Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice; Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates; Marine Corps Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and four senior White House aides: Stephen Hadley, national security advisor; J.D. Crouch, deputy national security advisor; White House Chief of Staff Joshua B. Bolten; and White House Counselor Dan Bartlett.

"I'm making good progress toward coming up with a plan that we think will help us achieve our objective," the president said.

A senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was discussing internal deliberations and decisions that have not been made final, said Bush was "driving toward making final decisions."

But he said that more information was being sought and that officials were "drilling down into the real details of the various elements -- political, economic, security -- and how these parts fit together."

"The security element is obviously very complicated," involving the movement of equipment and troops, he added.

The official indicated that at least a temporary troop increase was part of the discussion. Others have said that as many as 20,000 or perhaps 30,000 troops would be added to the approximately 140,000 there now by holding over some units scheduled to come home and moving up the dispatch of others.

"You'd expect that would be an element," he said of the consideration of a so-called surge.

Bush said last week that he was considering increasing the deployment. But a troop increase would present him with a steep challenge as he seeks to regain public support after the midterm election, which has been widely interpreted as a rejection of his conduct of the Iraq war.

Though Sen. John McCain of Arizona has called for sending more troops, other Republicans have challenged such a course. The idea is drawing sharp criticism from Democrats, setting the stage for a showdown at the start of a period in which both sides have proclaimed a new devotion to bipartisanship.

Levin's comments Thursday were the latest from Democrats warning against troop increases. On Tuesday, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, incoming chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, said such a boost would be "the absolute wrong strategy," a comment that drew a sharp retort from the White House a day later.

In addition to talking with members of Congress, Bush said, he will continue consultations with the Iraqi government, emphasizing the necessity of having a government there willing to deal with insurgents and sectarian violence.

Bush called the meeting Thursday "an important part of coming to closure" as he completes his new policy. Gates, Pace, Rice and Cheney stood behind him, all in casual sports clothes, as he spoke.

The timing of Bush's announcement of a new policy is tied to several factors: He is scheduled to return to Washington on New Year's Day after a week in Texas and will take part the next day in the funeral of former President Ford at Washington National Cathedral.

Also, Congress returns to open a new session on Thursday, although Bush can consult with its members before the formal opening.

james.gerstenzang@ latimes.com

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