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Iraq troop drawdown is on track, Bush says

Times Staff Writer

President Bush said Saturday that the United States was on track to bring home at least 20,000 troops from Iraq by summer, but he emphasized that he was willing to halt the drawdown “in order to make sure we succeed.”

After meeting in Kuwait with his top commander in Iraq, Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, and the U.S. ambassador to Baghdad, Ryan Crocker, the president presented a mixed picture of the conditions one year after he called for sending additional troops to Iraq.

Bush said that extremist militias had been disrupted but remained a concern. “We cannot take the achievements of 2007 for granted,” he said, referring to the reduction in violence toward the end of 2007, after the deadlier months at the start of the year.

With a stop at Camp Arifjan in Kuwait, the president was as close to Iraq as he is likely to get on his eight-day trip through the Middle East and Persian Gulf, unless he makes a detour to the war zone. The supply base is about 100 miles from Iraq.

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Speaking to about 3,000 U.S. troops who had gathered in the open on a chilly morning, Bush delivered a seven-minute pep talk, saying, “There is no doubt in my mind that we will succeed.”

He told the cheering troops that when the history of the early 21st century is written, “the final page will say: ‘Victory was achieved by the United States of America for the good of the world.’ ”

Administration officials have spoken for several weeks about their goal of reducing troop levels by five brigades by July, from a high of 20. That would bring the number of U.S. troops in Iraq below 140,000, from the 158,000 in the country at the end of December. There were about 130,000 U.S. troops in Iraq a year ago when Bush announced he was sending more.

Bush told reporters that, about the reductions, he had told Petraeus, “If you want to slow her down, fine; it’s up to you.”

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Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker provided the president with an in-person update ahead of their scheduled report to Congress in March on conditions in the country. Bush speaks frequently with the two by video over secure lines.

The general later told reporters that he was seeing “mixed signs” about conditions in Iraq.

He discussed a current operation against Al Qaeda in Iraq, an insurgent group that the administration says is led by foreigners, cautioning that to characterize the offensive as a final push “would be premature.”

Petraeus also raised anew concerns about what the administration says is Iran’s support of anti-U.S. forces. He said that senior leaders in Tehran had told Iraq’s top officials that Iran would stop “the funding, arming, training and directing of militia extremists,” but the United States was waiting to see that promise kept.

And Petraeus said that although certain methods of attacking U.S. troops had been curtailed, strikes using “explosively formed penetrators” had gone up in the last 10 days “by a factor of two or three.”

The United States has repeatedly accused Iran of providing the armor-piercing bombs, among the deadliest that U.S. troops face, to the Mahdi Army, a Shiite Muslim militia.

Crocker said he could not “draw any conclusions that the Iranians have made a fundamental shift” away from allegedly supporting extremist groups in Iraq.

Drawing attention to what the Bush administration alleges is Iran’s role in Iraq is a central element of the president’s travels among largely Sunni Muslim nations wary of Shiite-led Iran.

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Bush later flew to Bahrain, the first visit here by a U.S. president. He is scheduled to visit United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Egypt before returning to Washington on Wednesday.

Bahrain has played an important role in U.S. policy in the Persian Gulf, housing the headquarters of the Navy’s 5th Fleet. It has long been counted in the camp of reliable moderate partners in an unstable region. Two years ago, it signed a free-trade agreement with Washington.

But last month it was roiled by a week of clashes between Shiite Muslim opposition groups and forces of the Sunni-dominated government. The street fighting, sparked by the death of an activist, was some of the worst since a Shiite uprising in the 1990s.

At a welcoming ceremony here, Bush waved a ceremonial sword, grinning sheepishly alongside King Hamed ibn Isa Khalifa, who appeared more accustomed to holding his sword at arm’s length. The president, seeking to promote democracy in the region, noted that Bahrain had held two elections since 2000, and in 2006 a woman was elected for the first time to parliament.

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james.gerstenzang@ latimes.com


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