In Iraq, Bush Cites Gains

President Bush poses with troops in an unannounced visit to al-Asad air base in Iraq, where he met with the U.S. commander and ambassador.
President Bush poses with troops in an unannounced visit to al-Asad air base in Iraq, where he met with the U.S. commander and ambassador. (By Charles Dharapak -- Associated Press)
By Michael A. Fletcher and Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, September 4, 2007

AL-ASAD AIR BASE, Iraq, Sept. 3 -- President Bush, making an unannounced visit to this isolated and well-fortified air base in Anbar province, said Monday that continued gains in security in Iraq could allow for a reduction in U.S. troops and called on the Iraqi government to follow up with progress toward rebuilding and political reconciliation.

During more than seven hours on the ground here, Bush received an update on the war from Gen. David H. Petraeus, the U.S. commander, and U.S. Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker. He then met with Iraqi political leaders and Sunni tribal figures who have allied themselves with U.S. forces.

"General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker tell me if the kind of success we are now seeing continues, it will be possible to maintain the same level of security with fewer American forces," the president said.

Bush's trip -- his third to Iraq since the war began in 2003 -- comes at a pivotal moment in the debate over the future of the conflict. Petraeus and Crocker are scheduled to testify before Congress next week on the war's status since Bush ordered 30,000 additional troops into the country earlier this year. Their testimony is to be followed on Sept. 15 by a White House report to Congress assessing progress in Iraq.

Bush has argued that the strategy he announced in January, which took the U.S. force in Iraq to more than 160,000 troops, is showing signs of success and deserves more time. In Washington, he is widely expected to continue pressing that view in his report to lawmakers.

Monday's gathering, essentially a U.S.-Iraqi war council of top leaders on both sides, was convened in a Sunni-dominated province where fighting is on the wane. Administration aides said the choice of location was intended to signal that gains here could be replicated in other parts of the country.

Bush said that he and other members of his national security team "came here today to see with our own eyes the multiple changes that are taking place in Anbar province." Last summer, he recounted, he was told that Anbar was lost. But Iraqi citizens "refused to give in," and the province is far calmer today, he said.

[Speaking with reporters on Air Force One as it flew from Iraq to an economic summit in Australia, Bush stressed that any drawdown of troops was conditioned upon continuing improvements in security. No decision had been made on a reduction, he said. But security had improved to the point that he could "speculate on the hypothetical," he said.]

Bush's trip was conducted in strictest secrecy until he landed, making headlines around the world. [After its completion, he predicted that it would not influence the congressional war debate: "I don't think a presidential visit will cause people to vote one way or the other," he told reporters on the plane.]

Several influential Republicans have joined Democrats in recent months to demand that Bush begin withdrawing U.S. troops. Pointing to a recent Government Accountability Office draft audit as well as a recent intelligence estimate on Iraq, they say that despite some modest security improvements, the troop increase has not been followed by political reconciliation. In addition, the critics say, while violence is down in areas that the additional troops targeted -- mainly in Anbar and Baghdad -- it has increased elsewhere in Iraq.

During the visit, Bush affirmed that the United States would not abandon Iraq but warned that progress in reducing violence here must be solidified with political action by the central government. Bush acknowledged that "the challenges are great" and that the pace of progress overall remains "frustrating" both for Iraqis and for Americans.

In a meeting with a group of cheering Marines before he departed, Bush said that stability in Iraq would deny terrorists a base from which they could "plot and plan attacks on our homeland."

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