By Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 9, 2007
President Bush yesterday began promoting his plan to send more troops to Iraq, bringing more than 30 Republican senators to the White House as part of a major campaign to rally the American people behind another effort to stabilize the country.
Senators who met with Bush said the president made it clear that he is planning to add as many as 20,000 U.S. troops to help quell violence in Baghdad. They also said the president is arguing that his new plan has a better chance for success than past plans because of a greater willingness of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to commit Iraqi forces against all perpetrators of violence, including Shiite militias.
"It was clear to me that a decision has been made for a surge" of at least 20,000 additional troops, Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) said in a conference call with reporters. Smith said Bush believes "that the political processes have been overtaken by sectarian violence and that sectarian violence must be quelled so political processes can be restored."
Aides said Bush will formally unveil his new plans for Iraq in a nationally televised address from the White House tomorrow night; the speech looms as one of the most significant of his tenure. Even administration officials and friendly Republicans said the bar is much higher for Bush than with past speeches on Iraq, given the widespread disenchantment over the war and the deep skepticism, shared even by some Republicans, that more troops are part of the answer.
In the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll, six in 10 respondents said the war is not worth fighting, three-quarters disapproved of how Bush has handled the situation, and there was no consensus about how the United States should adjust its policies in Iraq. Only 17 percent called for an increase in U.S. forces, the "surge" believed to be a centerpiece of the new Bush plan.
Bush intends to present his revised strategy as being in support of Maliki's new plan for securing Baghdad, which the prime minister outlined on Saturday, senior U.S. officials said. The mission will include an understanding that joint U.S.-Iraqi forces will confront the Mahdi Army -- the biggest, best-armed militia and one that Maliki, a fellow Shiite, has been reluctant to face down -- as well as other illegal armed factions, both Shiite and Sunni.
The United States hopes to avoid conducting large-scale operations that take it into Sadr City -- the capital's sprawling Shiite slum, with about 2 million people who overwhelmingly support Mahdi Army leader Moqtada al-Sadr. "Iraqis will take on this plan and lead it. We will be there to support them and be there to help them hold it," said a senior U.S. official briefed on the plan.
But in practice, U.S. forces have often ended up in the forefront of joint combat operations.
The president will also announce expanded U.S. teams, combining civilian and military personnel, to deploy immediately after neighborhoods have been cleared of insurgents or sectarian militias, a U.S. official said.
"It's the biggest speech of his six years," said Ken Duberstein, who was White House chief of staff under President Ronald Reagan. "If the American people tune him out, the next two years will be very rocky. He really needs to sell the American people that this is a strategy that can be accomplished."
Duberstein said Bush "needs to explain to the American people the lessons that he has learned, which will persuade them that he has gotten the message for a new approach to Iraq."
Glen Bolger, a Republican pollster, said the speech is "going to be a crucial component of how the American people re-look at the president for the last two years" of his term. The challenge facing the White House, he said, "is people have to view the speech and say, 'Oh, this is something different, and he's got a plan and it's got a shot at improving the situation. It's not just, quote, stay the course, unquote.' "
As they began previewing the speech, administration aides indicated that the president plans to address the skepticism head-on. They indicated that he will talk about the lessons the United States has learned from the past several years of failing to quell the insurgency, as well as explain why he has confidence that the Maliki government can deliver on promises that it has not met so far.
One senior White House official acknowledged it will seem "counterintuitive" to many Americans that Bush believes it is necessary to add troops in the short term to be able to withdraw them in the future. But the official -- like others, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the president has yet to formally disclose his plans -- said Bush has concluded more troops are needed to arrest the violence that he believes is impeding the Iraqi government's ability to achieve political reconciliation and economic improvements.
This official noted that the president will be proposing many more steps, including political benchmarks for the Iraqi government and an economic development program that will be heavily shaped by additional spending by Baghdad.
"An increase in troops is not a strategy in and of itself," this official said. "It is a tactic to make the new strategy successful."
Democrats continued to voice skepticism that much new and effective will come from the White House. "This is a historic speech the president is about to make. The president, faced with a choice, is choosing escalation," said Richard C. Holbrooke, a U.N. ambassador in the Clinton administration and a leading Democratic voice on foreign policy. "I don't understand what he thinks is going on in Iraq, but whatever it is, he doesn't care about politics or the Congress or his successor when it comes to Iraq. He wants to either win the war or, since that is an impossibility, pass it on to his successor."
Only Republican senators came to the White House yesterday, a sign perhaps of the president's desire to rebuild his base on the eve of a critical speech. Several seemed mixed in their comments about the president's course.
"He seemed very confident," said Sen. Thad Cochran (Miss.), the ranking Republican on the Appropriations Committee, who was in one group. "I'm convinced he's come up with a proposal that he thinks will work."
But he said he was struck by the degree of discord at his meeting. "I think I was the only senator who acted like he would be supportive," Cochran said. "I was surprised that no one said it but me."
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), who met with Bush on Friday and yesterday, said he is "convinced that this plan is substantially different than anything that has been tried in the past." He added: "I am convinced that the American people want to prevail. This gives us a chance to do that."
Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.) said he "felt much better" about the plan after his 20-minute meeting with Bush, although he was reserving judgment until he saw the details. Domenici said the president's plan has been mischaracterized in recent weeks and is more complex than just a buildup of troops in Baghdad, adding that the Iraqis have agreed to spend at least $10 billion and will be in charge of the security plan.
"The plan is not 20,000 soldiers -- I wouldn't even consider the plan if it was 20,000 American soldiers, because that's too small a number for a surge," he said. "The people coming out of these meetings saying it's the lead ingredient just didn't get it. There are a lot of other important elements."
Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine) said the president was asked during her meeting what would be different about his new plan, and he replied that Maliki has had a "sea change" in attitude. But she said she came away unconvinced.
"I have deep skepticism about it -- about a surge addressing the root causes of the mistrust and hatred that sects have for each other," Snowe said. "That's what I expressed. The fact of the matter is that the American people don't support this war and the way it has evolved because they see the Iraqis fighting among themselves instead of for themselves."
Staff writers Peter Baker, Jon Cohen, Lyndsey Layton, Shailagh Murray and Robin Wright contributed to this report.