President Bush said Tuesday that U.S. troops would remain in Iraq beyond his presidency, a message that could complicate his effort to reassure an increasingly skittish public that the military deployment is not open-ended.
The complete withdrawal of U.S. troops “of course is an objective, and that will be decided by future presidents and future governments of Iraq,” Bush said at a White House news conference that was dominated by questions about Iraq. The president had not previously stated that the military role would continue beyond the end of his second term, on Jan. 20, 2009, a White House spokesman said.
It was the fourth consecutive day that Bush commented publicly about Iraq, a communications offensive that comes as polls show rising pessimism about the war there and the president’s approval rating falling to new lows.
“There will be more tough fighting ahead,” Bush said. But, he added, “if I didn’t believe we could succeed, I wouldn’t be there. I wouldn’t put those kids there.”
The president also echoed statements by other administration officials that Iraq was not in a state of civil war despite the sectarian divisions between Shiite and Sunni Muslims that have grown increasingly violent. On Sunday, Iyad Allawi, the former Iraqi interim prime minister who has been an ally of Bush, said he believed that Iraq was in a civil war.
Referring to the spasms of violence that shook Iraq after the Golden Mosque, a Shiite shrine in Samarra, was destroyed a month ago amid sectarian conflict, Bush said: “This is a moment where the Iraqis had a chance to fall apart, and they didn’t. And that’s a positive development.
“The Iraqis took a look and decided not to go to civil war,” he said. “The army didn’t bust up into sectarian divisions. The army stayed united.”
In addition, he said, religious leaders denounced violence, and political leaders representing different factions committed themselves to a unified government.
The news conference was the president’s second this year. He is scheduled to speak again on the Iraq war today during a trip to West Virginia.
Speaking energetically, Bush on Tuesday turned nearly every question on Iraq into a megaphone for his latest message on the war: that he understands Americans’ concerns about its progress and cost, but that it must be fought to deny terrorists an Iraqi base from which they could attack the United States. Bush also said that despite the violent images coming from Iraq, U.S. troops and Iraqi allies were succeeding against the insurgents.
In recent days, several polls have found that roughly 30% of those surveyed think the United States should immediately begin removing troops from Iraq, twice the percentage that favored a withdrawal two years ago and an indication of the political turmoil the war could cause for Bush’s party in the November midterm elections.
On Sunday, Army Gen. George W. Casey, the senior U.S. commander in Iraq, said on the television show “Fox News Sunday” that the number of troops would not drop below the current level of roughly 130,000 over the next few months, but that it would decline “over the course of 2006 and into 2007,” depending upon conditions in Iraq.
As difficult as a continued deployment may be for Bush’s political allies in the fall congressional elections, an even greater worry for Republican strategists is the perception that Americans have of the prospect for success in Iraq.
Frank Donatelli, a Republican political consultant, said in an e-mail exchange: “This ... perception will be key to how voters perceive our mission in Iraq. Remember, the public turned against Vietnam not because of the large troop commitment, but rather because they ultimately felt the war was unwinnable.”
Bush appeared to address that concern Tuesday, saying that “I think most Americans understand we need to win ... but they’re concerned about whether or not we can win.”
“I fully understand the consequences of this war,” he added. “I understand people’s lives are being lost. But I also understand the consequences of not achieving our objective by leaving too early. Iraq would become a place of instability, a place from which the enemy can plot, plan and attack.”
The president acknowledged that the war had cost him some of the support he claimed just after he was reelected in 2004, the “political capital” he might otherwise use to win congressional enactment of his domestic agenda.
“I’m spending that capital on the war,” he said.
Bush acknowledged the scale of the mission. “I understand how tough it is -- don’t get me wrong,” he said. “I hear it from our troops; I read the reports every night.”
The administration in recent days has stepped up its public criticism of what it sees as indications of an Iranian hand in fomenting violence in Iraq, and Bush emphasized that diplomatic contact with Iran should not be seen as a negotiation over Iraq.
The president said he had given permission to Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, to make clear to Tehran’s representatives in Baghdad “that attempts to spread sectarian violence” or to ship parts that could be used in roadside bombs were “unacceptable.”
He also took issue with the premise of a question, posed by veteran White House reporter Helen Thomas, about why he launched the war in Iraq.
“To assume I wanted war is just flat wrong,” he said.
Bush also said he would not replace Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, who Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) on Monday said should be fired.
“Although Mr. Rumsfeld is a strong leader, he is a stubborn leader,” Feinstein said Tuesday on MSNBC’s “Hardball.” “He doesn’t really admit mistakes. He doesn’t show much flexibility. He doesn’t listen to many others. He seems to really know what he wants to do, and he’s going to do it, no matter what the cost. Well, the cost is now substantial. So, my view is you need a different team. You need a different strategy.”
On other matters, the president said that, more than five years into his administration, he was “satisfied with the people I’ve surrounded myself with.”
But asked whether he was listening to advice that he add a veteran Washington hand to his staff, Bush hinted at such a move.
He said that he was “listening to all suggestions” but that “I’m not going to announce it right now.”
Times staff writer Joel Havemann contributed this report.