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THE CONFLICT IN IRAQ

Bush Foresees a Deeper U.S. Role in Iraq

The president warns that troop levels will not be cut next year and acknowledges that training of local forces has had mixed results.

December 21, 2004|Maura Reynolds and Sonni Efron | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — President Bush warned the American people Monday that the U.S. engagement in Iraq will intensify in the coming year, with the Jan. 30 election marking the "beginning of a process" toward democracy that will require higher troop levels and continue through 2005.

Painting a far more sober picture of the situation in Iraq than he did during his reelection campaign, Bush acknowledged that efforts to train Iraqi security forces have had only "mixed" results and that a violent insurgency has eroded morale among Iraqis and Americans.

In what is likely to be his last full-dress news conference before his inauguration next month, Bush appeared to be laying the groundwork for the first year of his second term. He argued that the Social Security system was in "crisis" and needed dramatic reform. He pledged to start simplifying the tax system. And he made it clear that troop levels in Iraq -- which the Pentagon plans to raise from 138,000 to 150,000 to increase security during the election -- are unlikely to be reduced next year.

The president shielded Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, who has come under renewed attack even by Bush's Republican allies for failing to adequately prepare for the aftermath of the war and adequately equip troops in the field and for displaying callousness to the families of the fallen by using a machine to sign condolence letters.

"I know Secretary Rumsfeld's heart. I know how much he cares for the troops," Bush said. "You know, sometimes perhaps his demeanor is rough and gruff, but beneath that ... is a good human being who cares deeply about the military and deeply about the grief that war causes."

In the 53-minute session with reporters, Bush sought to portray the U.S. involvement in Iraq as challenging but important and refused to predict when stability would be achieved.

"My point is the elections in January are just the beginning of a process, and it's important for the American people to understand that," Bush said during his opening comments in a small auditorium next door to the White House.

"No one can predict every turn in the months ahead, and I certainly don't expect the process to be trouble-free, yet I am confident of the result," he continued. "I'm confident the terrorists will fail, the elections will go forward and Iraq will be a democracy that reflects the values and traditions of its people."

During his presidential campaign, Bush rarely discussed events in Iraq beyond the Jan. 30 election, depicting the ballot as the peak of the U.S. effort there. He would say that the training of Iraqi forces was on schedule and the U.S. troop presence could start to be drawn down once adequate Iraqi police and army forces were trained.

"We're going to train troops -- and we are. We'll have 125,000 trained by the end of December," Bush said in a debate with Democratic challenger Sen. John F. Kerry in October. "Our plan is working. We're going to make elections and Iraq is going to be free, and America will be better off for it."

By contrast, Bush on Monday laid out a political timetable for next year. It includes the Jan. 30 elections to a transitional national assembly, ratification of a new constitution in October and election of a permanent government in December.

Some former administration and congressional officials said the president was trying to change Americans' expectations of what lies ahead in Iraq.

"He's clearly moving people's time horizon and understanding of the process," said James Dobbins, Bush's former envoy to Afghanistan who now directs the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the Rand Corp. "It's prudent to clear up the misunderstanding that previous statements may have created that this election in January is a watershed event after which everything will change for the better."

Dobbins said Bush wants to "begin preparing people for the more likely event, which is the insurgency does not diminish, the violence does not subside and the casualty rate does not go down."

Michael O'Hanlon, a former Congressional Budget Office national security expert and a foreign policy analyst at the Brookings Institution, said the president "was honest in a way he couldn't be all year."

"He admitted that it's not going that well," O'Hanlon said. "The spin machine didn't let them say that during the race."

In the aftermath of the U.S. invasion, American commanders said that no more than 30,000 U.S. troops would be needed on the ground by the end of 2003 and that Iraqi forces would provide security for the elections. But Bush acknowledged Monday that there have been problems training Iraqi forces.

"I would call the results mixed in terms of standing up Iraqi units who are willing to fight," Bush said. "There have been some cases where when the heat got on, they left the battlefield. That's unacceptable.... On the other hand, there were some really fine units in Fallouja, for example, in Najaf, that did their duty."

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