By Michael Abramowitz and Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, January 11, 2007
President Bush appealed directly to the American people last night to support a renewed campaign to pacify Iraq, calling for an additional 21,500 U.S. troops to help the beleaguered Iraqi government regain control of Baghdad while warning that he would not support an "open-ended" U.S. commitment.
In a widely anticipated nationally televised address, Bush stood in the library of the White House and soberly said he had pursued a flawed strategy and acknowledged for the first time that he had not sent enough troops to provide security for Iraqi civilians. He described the situation in Iraq as "unacceptable" to the American people and to himself.
"Our troops in Iraq have fought bravely. They have done everything we have asked them to do," he said in the 20-minute speech. "Where mistakes have been made, the responsibility rests with me."
At a time when polls show most Americans to be sharply critical of U.S. involvement in Iraq and his party has lost control of Congress, the speech was a chance for the president to change course and convince a skeptical public that the future of Iraq is still worth fighting for. The speech was originally scheduled for before Christmas but kept getting delayed even as its major component -- a "surge" in U.S. forces -- was leaked out and was attacked by members of both parties and questioned by the president's own generals.
Bush signaled last night that he is essentially choosing to deepen U.S. involvement in Iraq, calculating that improved tactics and what he hopes will be greater commitment from the Iraqi government will result in the success that has eluded the United States.
He emphasized that Iraqi troops will take the lead in the attempt to secure Baghdad, and said that the focus of the American effort will be to advise and support Iraqi forces, with additional U.S. troops embedded in Iraqi units. Of the additional troops, about 4,000 Marines will be used outside of Baghdad, fighting Sunni extremists in Anbar province.
In some of his sharpest language to date, the president placed the responsibility of improving conditions squarely on the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who has not delivered on an array of pledged reforms and security measures.
"If the Iraqi government does not follow through on its promises," Bush said, "it will lose the support of the American people -- and it will lose the support of the Iraqi people. Now is the time to act."
In a Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted after the speech, 61 percent of those surveyed said they opposed the president's plan to send additional troops. A majority of Americans -- 57 percent -- said that the United States is losing the war in Iraq. The poll of 502 randomly selected adults has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.5 percentage points.
For the first time since the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, Bush is moving forward with no guarantees of political support in Congress. Even before he began speaking, Democrats in Congress were mobilizing against him and afterward their leaders were castigating the president for "escalating" the U.S. involvement in Iraq.
"This proposal endangers our national security by placing additional burdens on our already overextended military, thereby making it even more difficult to respond to other crises," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) and other leaders said in a joint statement.
Republicans, however, seemed divided on Bush's plan. Congressional leaders backed the president but warned -- as did Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a likely 2008 GOP front-runner -- of the dangerous stakes. "Is it going to be a strain on the military? Absolutely," McCain said. "Casualties are going to go up."
Some Republican backbenchers went further. "I do not believe that sending more troops to Iraq is the answer," Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), who is considering a bid for the White House, said in a written statement issued from Baghdad. "Iraq requires a political rather than a military solution."
Although billed as a major new strategy from the White House, the president's plan seemed to draw on familiar strands of political, military and economic policy. Bush also sounded familiar themes in outlining the consequences of failure in Iraq, warning that radical Islamic extremists would grow and be positioned to topple moderate governments in the Middle East. He did not step back from his ambitious goal of a democratic Iraq that can sustain and defend itself.
The president challenged the Iraqi government to meet political benchmarks that it has consistently failed to achieve, such as a new law for the equitable distribution of oil revenue and holding provincial elections, both seen as critical to winning political support for the Shiite-led government from disaffected Sunnis. But he proposed no penalties for failing to comply with these milestones -- on the theory, his aides said, that it would be counterproductive to be seen as dictating terms to the Iraqi government. Bush also set no timetable for the removal of the added U.S. troops.
As part of his plan, the president outlined an expansion of economic assistance programs to complement the new security plan for Baghdad. "Ordinary Iraqi citizens must see that military operations are accompanied by visible improvements in their neighborhoods and communities," he said.
The United States will allocate more than $1 billion for three programs to create jobs and help reconstruction in neighborhoods secured by Iraqi and U.S. forces. The administration will also add nine provincial reconstruction teams, which are joint Pentagon and State Department programs, to help rebuild the country from the bottom up, including schools, local government and political interest groups.
Bush did not embrace the idea of dialogue with Iran and Syria to stabilize Iraq, a key recommendation of the Iraq Study Group. The panel, chaired by former secretary of state James A. Baker III and former congressman Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.), had hoped to restore bipartisan consensus around a new Iraq policy. While praising the group for its "thoughtful recommendations," Bush had tough words for Iran and Syria and seemed to promise stepped-up operations against both countries.
Bush vowed to "interrupt the flow of support" from Iraq's two key neighbors and to "seek out and destroy" networks providing weapons and training to U.S. enemies in Iraq.
"Succeeding in Iraq also requires defending its territorial integrity, and stabilizing the region in the face of the extremist challenge. This begins with addressing Iran and Syria," he said.
In a clear warning to the hard-line government of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Bush also announced that the United States will deploy Patriot air defense systems and expand intelligence sharing "to reassure our friends and allies."
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will depart for the region tomorrow to rally support for Iraq, particularly among the new "six plus two" bloc of conservative states that includes Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and five sheikdoms in the Persian Gulf region, he said.
One turnabout for the president came in his acknowledgment that security must be the first priority of the U.S. mission in Iraq -- not political reform, as many in the U.S. military have argued. "The most urgent priority for success in Iraq is security, especially in Baghdad," Bush said last night.
U.S. officials concede that the previous "clear, hold and build" program managed to clear areas of militants but did not hold or secure them afterward, allowing neighborhoods to fall back under the control of militants. Bush touched on this last night in explaining the failure to bring security to the capital.
"Our past efforts to secure Baghdad failed for two principal reasons," Bush said. "There were not enough Iraqi and American troops to secure neighborhoods that had been cleared of terrorists and insurgents. And there were too many restrictions on the troops we did have. Our military commanders reviewed the new Iraqi plan to ensure that it addressed these mistakes. They report that it does."
Bush said Maliki has pledged that political interference with military operations "will not be tolerated."
The president and his top advisers said they expect their new approach to succeed where previous ones did not because of a new commitment from Maliki to provide resources and crack down on violent sectarian militias, even Shiite ones. But they are placing great faith in an untested Iraqi government that has not demonstrated a capacity to bridge the sectarian divisions that have caused an upsurge in violence over the past year.
Even with the troop increase, the resulting total of about 153,000 U.S. forces in Iraq will amount to less than the roughly 165,000 deployed in December 2005, the high-water mark for U.S. troop strength in Iraq.
U.S. and Iraqi forces began a plan last summer to rid Baghdad of illegal militias and death squads that were fomenting sectarian violence, but the U.S.-designed effort faltered when Iraq failed to produce two-thirds of the troops Maliki had pledged. The difference now, U.S. officials say, is that Maliki put forward the plan himself and wants Iraq to take the lead, with a goal of assuming military command of the entire country in November. Iraq now has control over only three of its 18 provinces.
Bush said he will convene a bipartisan group of lawmakers to work on anti-terrorism policies, including increasing the size of the military. He also sounded a note of flexibility, saying that if lawmakers have improvements that can be made "we will make them."
But on Capitol Hill yesterday, sentiment seemed to harden against the president on Iraq in the opposition party, even among the most hawkish Democrats.
Both Senate and House Democrats moved toward introducing resolutions of disapproval, with House Democrats contemplating simply introducing the president's speech and asking members to vote for or against it. Democratic leaders made it clear that such nonbinding resolutions would be only a first step. Senior Democrats said that if sentiment against the president continues to grow, they will try to use their power of the purse to quell what they call an escalation.
Staff writers Josh White and Jonathan Weisman and polling director Jon Cohen contributed to this report.