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Bush hints at troop reduction

Times Staff Writer

President Bush made an unannounced visit to Iraq on Monday and held out the possibility that some U.S. troops might be withdrawn if security gains made in one part of the country could be spread to other areas.

However, the president offered no timetable on a withdrawal and did not suggest how many troops might be involved. And he insisted that decisions on force levels should not be driven by “a nervous reaction by Washington politicians or poll results.”

Bush, who had been expected to leave Washington on Monday for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Australia, instead flew in secrecy to this air base in Iraq’s Anbar province Sunday night to meet with top U.S. and Iraqi officials, including Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, and American troops. He later flew to Australia.

The six-hour visit gave Bush, who was joined by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, a high-profile opportunity to argue that conditions in Iraq were improving. It came not long before Congress is to receive long-awaited reports on Iraq and intensively debate whether to push for a withdrawal timetable.

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The president hailed what U.S. officials say is the improving security situation in Anbar, once one of the most violent regions in Iraq. He praised Sunni tribal leaders in the province who are fighting alongside U.S. forces against the group Al Qaeda in Iraq.

Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker “tell me if the kind of success we are now seeing continues it will be possible to maintain the same level of security with fewer American forces,” Bush said.

The two officials are scheduled to report to Congress next week on the Bush administration’s buildup of 28,500 additional troops in Iraq this year and are expected to argue that the changes in Anbar are evidence the strategy is working.

Outside the administration, many diplomats, Iraqi officials and other observers are more skeptical. They say violence in Anbar is down in large part because militants have simply moved to other parts of the country, where attacks have increased sharply this year.

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Iraqi leaders also worry that Sunni Arab tribes fighting alongside U.S. forces eventually will turn against Iraq’s central government, which is dominated by Shiite Muslims.

U.S. officials said they had brought Maliki and the other Iraqi leaders to Anbar in part to show the Sunni tribes that the central government was supportive of them.

“There are those inside the Maliki government who might want to characterize this as arming a Sunni opposition,” a senior Defense official. “That is why we have said time after time after time that we need to get Maliki out there.”

The Bush administration also has been pushing Maliki’s government to pass legislation that the Americans hope will encourage political reconciliation in Iraq, such as a measure to divide the country’s oil revenue among key ethnic and sectarian groups. The Iraqi parliament is scheduled to reconvene today after a monthlong vacation.

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For several weeks, senior Bush administration officials have said they expect Petraeus to recommend that the U.S. troop presence in Anbar be reduced, though that might not mean pulling those forces out of Iraq entirely.

Officials traveling with Bush noted that his statement about overall troop reductions was conditioned on security improving in Iraq. And later, speaking before a room with several hundred cheering troops, Bush said any drawdown would not be driven by politics.

“Those decisions will be made by calm assessments of military commanders, not a nervous reaction by Washington politicians or poll results in the media,” he said. “When we begin to draw down from Iraq, it will be from a position of strength and success, not from a position of fear and failure.”

Asked later about Bush’s comments, Gates said that a troop drawdown was “one of the central issues everyone is examining.” He said that military leaders were looking to see whether changing conditions would provide a chance to begin bringing troop levels down.

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Gates said the military leaders were looking at all the areas of Iraq individually.

“Clearly there is hard work that remains in some [areas], but the situation in others is in pretty good shape,” Gates said.

Just before meeting with the Sunni tribal leaders, Bush emphasized that the U.S. would not leave Iraq anytime soon.

“I am going to reassure them that America does not abandon our friends, and America will not abandon the Iraqi people,” Bush said, flanked by Gates and Rice. “That is the message all three of us bring.”

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“The secretaries and I have come here today to see with our own eyes the remarkable changes that are taking place in Anbar province,” Bush said.

Last year, 356 American troops were killed in Anbar, according to the website icasualties.org, 43% of the U.S. fatalities in Iraq. This year, 146 U.S. troops have been killed there, 20% of the total in Iraq.

The tribal leaders’ decision to cooperate with the U.S. has come at a price. Scores of Iraqis have died in bombings blamed on insurgents bent on revenge. The attacks have targeted civilians as well as the burgeoning new police force built with young recruits willing to work alongside U.S. and Iraqi forces. Attacks also have been aimed at tribal sheiks, including several who died in a June 25 bomb attack at the Baghdad hotel where they were meeting.

Bush aides said the sheiks were willing to align with the U.S. because insurgents with Al Qaeda in Iraq had overplayed their hand, enforcing a strict Islamic law that the Sunnis in Anbar did not want. Al Qaeda in Iraq is one of several Sunni militant groups fighting in the country. Its ranks include a significant number of non-Iraqi fighters, mostly Saudis, U.S. officials said. The extent of its links to Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda terrorist network is unclear.

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Under the agreements worked out in Anbar and other parts of Iraq, the tribes have pledged to support the central government in exchange for having their members brought into the security forces. American officials hope that such agreements can lead to broader reconciliation between Sunni and Shiite factions.

Defense officials described the gathering of U.S. officials at this air base about 120 miles northwest of Baghdad as a meeting of Bush’s war council. In addition to Petraeus, Gates and Rice, Bush was joined by Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Navy Adm. William J. Fallon, the top commander in the Middle East; and Stephen J. Hadley and Army Lt. Gen. Douglas E. Lute of the National Security Council.

“This is the last big gathering of the president’s top military advisors and Iraqi leadership before the president decides on the way forward,” said Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell.

In a news conference after Bush’s speech, Gates said that in addition to Petraeus’ assessment, Fallon and Pace were doing their own analyses.

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“I felt it was very important that the president have the opportunity to speak directly to each of his senior military commanders and get their views on the way forward,” Gates said.

Pace and other members of the Joint Chiefs are said to favor significantly reducing U.S. troop levels by the end of next year.

But Gates said the separate presentations did not necessarily mean there was disagreement between the Joint Chiefs and Petraeus. Gates also said that he had formed an opinion on whether there could be troop reductions in the coming months, but he declined to share it.

The upcoming assessments are crucial because they may determine whether Congress will try to force the Bush administration to alter its strategy and begin reducing the military presence in Iraq, which numbers about 20 combat brigades and about 164,000 troops.

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The American delegation met with Maliki and five other Iraqi leaders representing the main sectarian groups, including President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd. Talabani, whose support for a unified Iraq is crucial to American officials, arrived to the meeting late, and Bush rose to greet him.

“Mr. President, Mr. President,” Bush said. “The president of the whole country.”

The two then exchanged a traditional triple kiss.

Bush’s last trip to Iraq was in June 2006, when he left a Camp David retreat, flew to Iraq and surprised Maliki with a visit. In 2003, he had traveled to Iraq during Thanksgiving, a trip best remembered for a photograph of the president presenting U.S. troops in a dining hall with what turned out to be a decorative turkey.

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Although this visit was equally short, officials sought to characterize it as more than just a photo opportunity.

“The president, having to make some important decisions, felt it was important for him to come firsthand,” said Hadley, the national security advisor.

julian.barnes@latimes.com

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Times staff writers Alexandra Zavis and Tina Susman in Baghdad and Maura Reynolds in Honolulu contributed to this report.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Secret preparations

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President Bush was supposed to leave Washington on Monday for an international summit in Australia. Instead, the day found him mingling with U.S. troops in the desert about 120 miles north of Baghdad.

Bush’s unannounced trip to Iraq was arranged in tight secrecy, with the president sneaking out a side door of the White House about 18 hours before his scheduled departure for Sydney and driving in a two-car motorcade to Andrews Air Force Base, Md.

Reporters traveling on Air Force One had been sworn to secrecy a day earlier and were held behind curtains in the rear of the plane until takeoff.

The rest of the press corps, on a separate flight headed for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation gathering, learned of the president’s Iraq detour only as they arrived in Honolulu for a scheduled refueling stop.

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The president met with Iraqi leaders and top U.S. officials during his six-hour stop at Al Asad Air Base, then traveled on to Australia.

On the way to Iraq, White House officials denied that the visit was little more than a stunt designed to help Bush make his case that his military strategy is making progress.

The president “felt it was important for him to come firsthand,” said national security advisor Stephen J. Hadley, adding that Bush was particularly looking forward to meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, as well as Sunni Arab tribal leaders. “There is no substitute for sitting down, looking him in the eye and having a conversation with him.”

From a Times staff writer

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