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Bush says U.S. Iraq troop cut possible with success

Reuters | September 3, 2007
Matt Spetalnick and Andrew Gray

President George W. Bush raised the prospect of troop cuts in Iraq after meeting top commanders at a desert air base on Monday but said any reduction would only be made from a position of strength.

Bush's visit came as his leading officials in Iraq prepared to deliver a pivotal report to the Democrat-controlled Congress next week on his military strategy. He has sent 30,000 more troops to Iraq, raising force levels to 160,000.

He flew into Iraq's western Anbar province, choosing the former Sunni Arab insurgent stronghold once considered a lost cause to showcase what he said was one of the main success stories of his new military strategy.

Bush met U.S. commander General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker to get his own assessment of how the troop increase was working ahead of their report to Congress on September 10. U.S. commanders have said levels of violence are down but that more time is needed to consolidate their gains.

"General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker tell me if the kind of success we are seeing continues, it will be possible to maintain the same level of security with fewer American forces," Bush told reporters traveling with him.

Speaking later about troop levels in an address to hundreds of cheering Marines, Bush said:

"Those decisions will be based on a calm assessment by military commanders on conditions on the ground, not a nervous reaction by Washington politicians to poll results and the media.

"When we begin to draw down troops in Iraq it will be from a position of strength and success, not from the position of fear and failure. To do otherwise would embolden our enemies and make it more likely that they would attack us at home."

Bush also held what he called "good, frank" talks with the leaders of Iraq's Shi'ite, Sunni Arab and Kurdish communities, including Shi'ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who have so far made little progress towards national reconciliation.

The president is under pressure from Democrats and some Republicans who want U.S. troops to start leaving after more than four years of war in which 3,700 American soldiers and tens of thousands of Iraqis have been killed.

SYMBOLIC VISIT

Bush urged the Iraqi government to "follow up" on what he termed progress on the security front.

"The military successes are paving the way for the political reconciliation and economic progress that Iraqis need to transform their country," he said.

None of the key laws viewed by Washington as vital to reconciliation have been passed by parliament, which returns after its summer break on Tuesday, and Maliki's cabinet has been hit by the withdrawal of nearly half his ministers.

Bush was accompanied by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and national security adviser Stephen Hadley. Defense Secretary Robert Gates arrived separately.

"This is very much the meeting of the war council," Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said before Bush held his talks.

"I would anticipate that after Petraeus and Crocker address the Congress that the president will articulate in some fashion the way forward."

Gates said commanders and administration officials had been looking hard at the current security situation and when it might be safe to cut troop levels.

"Clearly that is one of the central issues that everyone has been examining -- what is the security situation, what do we expect the security situation to be in the months ahead?" Gates told reporters.

The decision by Bush to fly to Anbar was seen as highly symbolic. Such a trip would have been unthinkable just months ago, when the province was the most dangerous in Iraq for U.S. troops.

But a rebellion by Sunni Arab tribes against Sunni Islamist al Qaeda has helped pacify Anbar, and it will likely be held up by Petraeus as a success of the U.S. military strategy.

Bush, who also held talks with local tribal leaders, said the change in Anbar was an example of what could happen in Iraq.

"It was once written off as lost. It is now one of the safest places in Iraq," he said.

Senior U.S. military officers say, however, the goodwill of the tribes could be lost if the government does not do more to incorporate their fighters into the Iraqi security forces.

Bush's stopover in Iraq had not been announced in advance. The president, who visited Iraq in June last year and previously in November 2003, was on his way to a meeting of Asia-Pacific leaders in Sydney and was due to spend six hours in Iraq.

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