AL ASAD AIR BASE, Iraq (Reuters) - 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 must be made from a position of strength.
Bush’s visit came days before his leading officials in Iraq deliver a pivotal assessment report to the Democrat-controlled Congress. He said deployment of 30,000 extra troops, decried by Democrat critics as a failure, had eased violence in some areas.
“Those decisions (on troop levels) 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,” he told hundreds of cheering Marines.
“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 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.
He 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 travelling with him.
Bush also held what he called “good, frank” talks with leaders of Iraq’s Shi’ite Muslim, Sunni Arab and Kurdish communities, including Shi’ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who have 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 U.S. troops and tens of thousands of Iraqis have been killed.
Bush urged the Iraqi government to “follow up” on what he termed progress on the security front. A major problem for the Shi’ite-led government is winning enough support from the Sunni minority, once dominant under Saddam Hussein, to end violence.
None of the 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 said he took Maliki aside at one stage and told him: “‘You’re my friend and ... you’ve made progress in your recent meetings and now’s the time to get these laws passed. You’ve got hard work to do.’ and you know what? He understands that.”
The president was accompanied by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and national security adviser Stephen Hadley. U.S. 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.
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 from the present 160,000.
“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.
Bush’s visit to Anbar was widely 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 Sunni Arab tribes turned on Sunni Islamist al Qaeda, helping to pacify Anbar. 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 Iraq stopover had not been announced in advance. The president, who paid visits in June last year and in November 2003, was on his way to an Asia-Pacific summit in Sydney.