January 13, 2008

Bush open to slowing pullout of US troops in Iraq

MANAMA, Bahrain - President Bush said yesterday that the United States was on track to bring home at least 20,000 troops from Iraq by this summer, but he stressed that he was willing to slow or halt the drawdown "in order to make sure we succeed."

After meeting in Kuwait with his top Iraq commander, General David H. Petraeus, and Ryan Crocker, the US ambassador to Baghdad, the president presented a mixed picture of the conditions one year after he sent additional troops there.

Bush said that extremist militias had been disrupted but they remain 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 scheduled to get on his eight-day trip through the Middle East and Persian Gulf, unless he makes a detour to the war zone. The US supply base is about 100 miles from Iraq.

Speaking to about 3,000 American 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 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."

Bush was encouraged yesterday by news that Iraq's parliament had approved legislation reinstating thousands of former supporters of Saddam Hussein's dissolved Ba'ath Party to government jobs.

Bush also received a lavish welcome in Bahrain, where he met with King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa. Men in robes and headdresses waved swords and danced to rhythmic music in a palace courtyard. The president and the king were presented with swords and flashed them skyward.

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

But Bush said that he had told Petraeus, "If you want to slow her down, fine. It's up to you."

The meeting with the top US military officer and diplomat assigned to Iraq provided the president an in-person update ahead of their March report to Congress on conditions in Iraq. Bush speaks frequently with them over secure video lines.
The general later said that he was seeing "mixed signs" about conditions in Iraq.

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

The general also raised concerns about what the administration says is Iran's support of anti-American forces. He said that senior Iranian leaders had told Iraq's top officials that it 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 US 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 accused Iran of providing the weapons, among the deadliest that US troops face, to the Mahdi Army, a Shi'ite Muslim militia.

Drawing attention to what the administration says is Iran's role in Iraq is a central element of the president's travels among largely Sunni Muslim nations wary of Shi'ite-led Iran.

Bush later flew to Bahrain, the first visit by a US 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 US policy in the gulf, housing the headquarters of the Navy's Fifth Fleet. It has long been counted in the camp of reliable moderate partners in an unstable region.

Last month it was roiled by a week of clashes between Shi'ite Muslim opposition groups and forces of the Sunni-dominated government. The street fight, sparked by the death of an activist, was some of the worst since a 1990s Shi'ite uprising.

Bush congratulated the king for holding free elections and noted that Bahrain two years ago elected a female member of parliament.

Posing for pictures with the king, Bush said, "I know you've been concerned about Iraq and the politics of Iraq." Referring to the action in Iraq's parliament, he added, "I come with an upbeat message, a hopeful message - a message that will prevail here in the Middle East."

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