President Bush outlined Wednesday a shifting role for the U.S. military in Iraq in 2006, forecasting a continued reduction in troop strength and a move away from combat and into advisory and training roles.
At the same time, he acknowledged problems within the Iraqi police force as well as what is clear from news reports: that violence continues and that ethnic and religious divisions continue to wreak havoc.
The president's remarks came on the deadliest day in Iraq since the Dec. 15 elections, as about 50 Iraqis died in scattered clashes and bombings with sectarian overtones. In Wednesday's worst incident, as many as 36 people were killed and 43 injured when a suicide bomber attacked a funeral for a young man killed Tuesday in an assassination attempt on his uncle, a Shiite Muslim politician.
Returning to a theme that Bush advanced as 2005 drew to a close -- that despite the violence, the United States and its allies in Iraq were gaining an upper hand -- he said that the increasing capability of Iraqi security forces would allow the United States to reduce its combat forces from 17 brigades to 15, for a reduction of about 5,000 troops.
Bush said the drawdown would bring the total deployment to several thousand below the 138,000 troops that were in Iraq before the preelection buildup to roughly 160,000 toward the end of last year. He added that the United States would hand more territory and responsibility to Iraqi forces.
"In 2006, we expect Iraqis will take more and more control of the battle space, and as they do so, we will need fewer U.S. troops to conduct combat operations around the country," Bush said. "More of our forces will be dedicated to training and supporting the Iraqi units. In the coming year, we will continue to focus on helping Iraqis improve their logistics and intelligence capabilities so more Iraqi units can take the fight and can sustain themselves in the fight."
Bush spoke at the Pentagon after spending about two hours in a briefing with senior commanders from the Middle East, Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
The trip across the Potomac was the first of several events, some public and some behind closed doors, on Bush's schedule in coming days as he seeks to establish a foundation for the public debate in an increasingly political year leading up to congressional elections in November.
He has invited recent secretaries of State and Defense, both Republicans and Democrats, to the White House today for a briefing on Iraq. The president is then scheduled to unveil a plan to spend hundreds of millions of dollars over five years to improve foreign language skills in the military -- a program that, the Baltimore Sun reported Monday, is intended to help soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The administration is planning for a broad presentation on economic matters Friday, apparently anticipating a strong report on December employment figures that morning. Bush is to make a lunchtime speech on the economy in Chicago after visiting the Chicago Board of Trade, and more than 20 senior officials from the Treasury, Energy, Commerce and Labor departments are planning speeches and television appearances throughout the day.
As part of the administration's outreach, Cheney gave a speech Wednesday at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative public policy center here. He echoed Bush's optimism about Iraq to defend the president's decision in 2001 to permit the National Security Agency to wiretap conversations and read e-mails between U.S. citizens or residents and people outside the country without obtaining court warrants.
The vice president called the program "critical" to the nation's security, and said members of Congress had been briefed on it more than a dozen times -- most in meetings at which he presided. Some Democratic Senate and House members have complained that the meetings were limited to a few senior lawmakers and that they could not take notes or follow up on the information they were provided.
Cheney said that the eavesdropping was necessary, "totally appropriate and within the president's authority," and was limited to "surveillance associated with terrorists."
"The civil liberties of the American people are unimpeded by these actions," he said.
The vice president noted that he had been chief of staff for President Ford, who assumed the presidency when President Nixon resigned in disgrace, and that the Ford administration was "adamant about following the law and protecting civil liberties of all Americans" after the Watergate scandal.
"Three decades later, I work for a president who shares those same values," Cheney said.
Taken together, Bush's appearances, along with those of other officials, reflect an effort to argue that on the war front and the economic front, the administration is anticipating better news than the White House got throughout 2005.
Acknowledging the reports that Iraqi police units had been found by U.S. forces to be torturing prisoners, much as U.S. troops had done at the Abu Ghraib prison, Bush said: "The recent reports of abuses by some of the Iraqi police units are troubling, and that conduct is unacceptable."
He said that U.S. forces would adjust the training program for Iraqi units. "First, we're going to work with the Iraqi government to increase the training Iraqi police recruits receive in human rights and the rule of law, so they understand the role of the police in a democratic society," Bush said.
"Second, we're training Iraqi police with a program that has been effective with the Iraqi army ... and that is to embed coalition transition teams inside Iraqi special police units."
The task of training the police force is particularly difficult. Sectarian militias have infiltrated police units, and persuading the police troops to walk away from loyalties to warlords is more than a matter of training them to be polite during traffic stops.
"The coalition teams will go in the field with the police; they'll provide real-time advice and important assistance on patrol and during operations," Bush said. "And between operations they're doing to train the Iraqi officers; they're going to help them become increasingly capable and professional so they can serve and protect all the Iraqi people without discrimination."