Bush Says No Decision Yet on Iraq Troop Levels

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By Daniela Deane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 11, 2005; 4:06 PM

President Bush said Thursday no decision has been made on increasing or decreasing U.S. troop levels in Iraq, saying that as "Iraqis stand up, we will stand down" and that only conditions on the ground will dictate when it is time for a reduction in U.S. forces.

He said that although he sympathizes with anti-war advocates such as the California mother camped outside his Texas ranch mourning her fallen son in Iraq, he "strongly disagrees" that U.S. forces should be pulled out of the country.

He suggested that the number of U.S. troops in Iraq -- currently about 138,000 -- may in fact be increased as Iraqi factions attempt to draft and ratify a constitution.

Bush made his comments after meeting with his defense and foreign policy advisers at his Texas ranch, where he is spending the month of August.

Withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq prematurely would send a "terrible signal" to the enemy and constitute a betrayal of the Iraqi people, Bush said.

Speaking to reporters outside his ranch, the president also said he expects the United States to issue a visa to Iran's newly elected president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to allow him to attend U.N. General Assembly meetings in New York in September.

"We have an agreement with the United Nations to allow people to come to meet, and I suspect he will be here," Bush said. He said the United States is "still investigating allegations" that Ahmadinejad was involved in the 1979 seizure of U.S. hostages in Tehran, a charge Iran has denied.

Bush's comments about the Iranian president came two days after Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld criticized Tehran, saying that some weapons found in Iraq had clearly come from Iran.

Bush said progress was being made in the training of Iraqi units, which he said was crucial for any U.S. withdrawal. "More and more units are becoming more and more capable," Bush said. "Not that many can stand alone," he said, adding though, that "a lot have gone from raw to plenty capable."

Bush's comments came after a bloody two weeks for U.S. forces in Iraq, during which more than two dozen U.S. troops were killed by suicide bombers, roadside bombs and small-arms fire.

Bush said that although he grieves "for every death" in Iraq, he does not share the views of those urging a U.S. withdrawal.

Asked if he was speaking about Cindy Sheehan, the mother of a 24-year-old slain U.S. soldier who has been camping out outside the president's ranch, Bush said: "I sympathize with Mrs. Sheehan. I've thought long and hard about her position, which is 'get out of Iraq now.' It would be a mistake for the security of this country."

The Vacaville, Calif., mother has been camping out since Saturday, trying to meet with the president. She has vowed to remain at the ranch until Bush's vacation ends. Her son, Casey Sheehan, was killed just five days after he arrived in Iraq last year.

Bush told reporters he "had met with a lot of families" and done his "best to bring comfort and honor to the loved one."

Bush's comments about U.S. troop strength in Iraq came after recent comments by Gen. George W. Casey, the top commander in Iraq, suggesting that a "fairly substantial" troop reduction could come by spring and summer of next year.

"That's all speculation," Bush said. He indicated that troops could actually be increased as Iraqi factions attempt to draft and ratify a constitution. Monday is the deadline for Iraqi factions to agree on a draft of the constitution.

"We did increase [troops] for the Iraqi election," Bush said, which he said seemed to have helped the security situation on the ground. He said Rumsfeld "was looking at that possibility" now. Administration officials have warned that insurgents could step up attacks as Iraqi leaders try to hammer out a constitution for the country.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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