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Bush says Iraq build-up may be reviewed by September

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President George W. Bush said on Tuesday that U.S. commanders likely will be able to gauge by September whether or not the troop build-up in Iraq is succeeding.

Bush spoke in an interview on the Public Broadcasting System’s “Charlie Rose Show” a day after a suicide truck bomb killed nine U.S. troops in one of the worst attacks on American ground forces since the invasion in 2003.

He said Army Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, felt it was too early to fully assess the impact of committing additional troops, mostly in Baghdad, because only about half of the new forces had been deployed.

Asked when such a review would be carried out, Bush said: “I think (Petraeus) would tell you that in September he might have a pretty good feel for whether or not it made sense or not.”

The administration has avoided saying how long it will keep the expanded force of about 160,000 troops, including about 30,000 ordered in by Bush in January. But officials have said the situation will be reviewed in late summer.

The implication is that a drawdown in forces could then begin, but remarks by commanders and other officials suggest higher levels would likely remain for months beyond that.

Monday’s bombing of a military outpost north of Baghdad came amid a showdown between Bush and congressional Democrats over their efforts to tie Iraq funding to a timetable for U.S. withdrawal. Bush has vowed to veto the legislation.

U.S. commanders have said the latest security crackdown has yielded mixed results so far, with a drop in sectarian murders but a rise in high-casualty car bomb attacks.

In the television interview Bush also held out the possibility of contacts between Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Iranian officials if they take part in a conference on stabilising Iraq, to be held next month in Egypt.

“What I’m not willing to do is sit down bilaterally with the Iranians,” said Bush, who has led a campaign with other world powers to isolate Iran over its nuclear program, according to a transcript of the program.

But when asked whether Rice and Iran’s foreign minister might have bilateral conversations at the conference, Bush said, “They could, they could.”

He maintained, however, that contacts would be limited to urging Iran to stop sending weapons into Iraq “that will end up hurting our troops.” Tehran has denied providing arms.