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."
Any pullout would not be based on fear or politics, he said. "When we begin to draw down troops from Iraq, it will be from a position of strength and success, not from a position of fear and failure," he said. "The decision will be made on a calm assessment by our military commanders based on the conditions on the ground, not a nervous reaction by Washington politicians or poll results in the media."
The air base where the meeting took place is located in the desert in northern Anbar. Captured by Australian troops from former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein's forces during the early weeks of the war, it has a 13-mile perimeter and is home to 7,000 Marines and 3,000 Army soldiers.
Although Bush touted the substantial political and security progress made in Anbar, he did not leave the safety of the base Monday to see those changes firsthand.
Bush met with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and other top Iraqi leaders. Afterward, flanked by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, he said, "We had a good, frank discussion."
Bush said he urged Iraqi leaders to take concrete actions, such as sharing oil revenue among different ethnic groups, to support "bottom-up reconciliation" in areas such as Anbar, located in western Iraq, where Sunnis have been working with U.S. forces to fight extremist insurgent groups such as al-Qaeda in Iraq.
He "congratulated them . . . for the achievement" of signing an agreement in the past week to work together on provincial elections, the status of former members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party and other issues but emphasized that it was only "a starting point," national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley told Pentagon reporters.
In a meeting that followed with the Iraqi leaders and Sunni sheiks from Anbar, Bush sat at the center of the table and, according to Hadley, "encouraged the connection" between the two groups, calling on national leaders to support Anbar's reconstruction and inviting the sheiks to participate in political reconciliation at the national level.
Gates said the Anbar sheiks told Bush that the additional 4,000 Marines sent to Anbar as part of the troop increase "helped cement the gains" in pacifying the province.
According to a U.S. military officer, attacks in Anbar, calculated on a 90-day average, have fallen by more than half since the start of the year.
Sunni leaders in Anbar have begun to accept as unrealistic "any notion, as many had years ago after the fall of Saddam, that somehow there would be . . . a return to Sunni rule," a senior defense official said. Now, the official said, they realize that joining in a unified Iraq would bring them jobs and economic benefits, including some of the $10 billion the central government plans to distribute to the provinces this year.
Leaders of Iraq's Shiite-dominated government remain wary about the Sunni shift, in which thousands of former insurgents have joined fledgling armed security forces, not only in Anbar but also in northern Iraq, Diyala province in the east and around Baghdad, U.S. officials say. The government has moved slowly to incorporate the Sunnis into the regular police forces and army.
"There are those inside the Maliki government that might want to characterize this as arming a Sunni opposition to the Shia-based Maliki government," the senior defense official said. As a result, U.S. officials saw it as vital to persuade Maliki to visit Anbar, where he has rarely traveled since becoming prime minister, to try to foster reconciliation at the national level.
Sunni tribal sheiks in Anbar province, frustrated with the lack of basic services in the area, said before meeting Bush that they would press him for specific action.
"We welcome him as a friend in Anbar, and we expect a great deal," said Ali al-Khalifa, a sheik in the Dulaimi tribe. "We have drafted a list of demands which we hope Mr. Bush will not be late in realizing, such as providing electricity, water, communications, hospitals and other infrastructure, as well as complete compensations to the citizens."
Other sheiks said they saw Bush's visit as a celebration of the military's cooperation with former Sunni insurgents.
"Bush's visit to Anbar province is a strong message to the Maliki government in Baghdad and a rebuke to the Shiite opposition to arming the tribesmen to fight al-Qaeda in Iraq," said Farhan Jassem, a sheik from the Dulaimi tribe. "I believe the tribesmen have fulfilled their promises which they had made to the American forces. We have achieved in four months what the United States could not do in four years, destroying al-Qaeda in Anbar."
Staff writer Megan Greenwell in Baghdad contributed to this report.