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Bush hints at troop reduction

On a surprise visit to Iraq, he says that if security gains continue, a drawdown of U.S. forces is possible.

September 04, 2007|Julian E. Barnes | Times Staff Writer

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President Bush made an unannounced visit to Iraq on Monday and held out the possibility that some U.S. troops might be withdrawn if security gains made in one part of the country could be spread to other areas.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

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.

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.

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.

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."

"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.

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