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President Confronts Dissent on Troop Levels

On his first tour of Iraq yesterday, Gates said "we're just beginning that process" of figuring out how much to expand ground forces overall. But he cautioned that the long-term project was not related to the immediate question of what to do in Iraq. "An increase in the size of the Army today really won't show up for some period of time," Gates said.

Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), wrapping up his own visit to Iraq, said a surge might be helpful in Anbar, the western province that has been a haven for al-Qaeda. "But in Baghdad," he told reporters from Kuwait, "it's not going to help unless the Iraqis decide that they're going to get their act together and stop sectarian violence."

Incoming Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said Bush's latest remarks indicate that he has not come to grips with the need for urgent change in Iraq. "The president seems lost within his own rhetoric," Reid said in a statement. "He is grasping for a victory his current policies have put out of reach and leaving our troops stuck policing a civil war."

Bush argued that failure in Iraq would be an even worse result and expressed confidence that many Americans "understand the consequences of retreat." As he prepared to begin his holiday break at Camp David and his ranch in Crawford, Tex., he ruminated in response to questions on the difficulty of wartime leadership but said he harbors no doubts about his decision to invade Iraq in 2003. "The most painful aspect of the presidency," he said, "is the fact that I know my decisions have caused young men and women to lose their lives."

An antiwar group reacted angrily to the comments.

"I know that my son's life was wasted, thrown away like it was nothing," Michelle Deford, whose son, Army Sgt. David Johnson, was killed in Iraq in 2004, said in a statement released by Gold Star Families Speak Out. "What we need to do is bring the rest of our sons and daughters home now."

Staff writer Thomas E. Ricks contributed to this report from Baghdad.

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