By Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 13, 2008
CAMP ARIFJAN, Kuwait, Jan. 12 -- President Bush ventured to this sprawling U.S. base near Iraq on Saturday to begin exploring further troop reductions with his top commander and take something of a victory lap over the country's improved security conditions a year after announcing "the surge."
Bush seemed anxious to avoid another moment similar to one in 2003 soon after the fall of Saddam Hussein, when he appeared on the USS Abraham Lincoln below a giant sign reading "Mission Accomplished." In a statement to reporters here, Bush spoke of the difficult challenges ahead, such as defeating the insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq and reaching political reconciliation among Iraq's feuding sects.
But he also seemed to claim some vindication for his decision to send an additional 30,000 soldiers to Iraq last year to help quell spiraling violence. Bush pursued his policy in the face of questions not only from Democrats but also from many Republicans and generals at the Pentagon.
"A lot of people thought that I was going to recommend pulling out or pulling back," Bush said. "Quite the contrary; I recommended increasing the number of forces so they could get more in the fight, because I believed all along if people are given a chance to live in a free society, they'll do the hard work necessary to live in a free society."
"Iraq is now a different place from one year ago," Bush said after his first face-to-face meeting in four months with Gen. David H. Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker. Bush and Petraeus discussed the possibility of further troop reductions later this year, but no decisions were made.
Bush then appeared briefly before several thousand soldiers gathered on bleachers in the middle of this large Army base in the desert south of Kuwait City. A giant "Hoo-ah!" greeted the commander in chief as he thanked the troops for their service and vowed victory in Iraq.
"There is no doubt in my mind that we will succeed," Bush said, standing near a giant American flag hanging from a crane. "There is no doubt in my mind when history was written, the final page will say: 'Victory was achieved by the United States of America for the good of the world.' "
Bush's visit to this Army base, between state visits with the leaders of Kuwait and Bahrain, is the only stop of his eight-day trip to the Middle East devoted solely to Iraq, the central project of his presidency. Whether Bush succeeds in creating a stable democracy remains in question, and debate has broken out among military experts over whether the decline in violence is a temporary lull or a permanent feature of life in Iraq.
Petraeus reported at the end of last year that the number of weekly attacks in Iraq had dropped 60 percent since June, to roughly 500 a week by late December. A total of 901 U.S. soldiers died in Iraq in 2007, compared with 822 in 2006, according to Iraq Coalition Casualty Count, an independent organization that tracks casualties.
As the Jan. 10 anniversary of the surge announcement approached, many Democrats ramped up criticism of what they see as a lack of progress on the political front. They argued that the troop increase has failed to achieve one of its principal objectives: Iraq's politicians, they say, have not used this period of reduced violence to make necessary political compromises, such as reaching an agreement on legislation about sharing oil revenue.
In one sample of this critique, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said this week that political progress remains "out of reach" in Iraq while the Baghdad government "has done so little to achieve stability and it has been the most lethal year yet for American troops."
Bush seemed to catch a break Saturday when the Iraqi parliament passed a key piece of legislation intended to help restore government jobs to people who had been in Hussein's Baath Party. U.S. officials have been pressing Iraqi lawmakers to enact such a law to help heal sectarian rifts.
Asked about the political benchmarks, Bush said Iraqis have "a lot more work to do," but he suggested the criticism was overstated, noting that the Iraqi parliament is passing laws and reconciliation is taking place at a local level.
"They passed a pension law, which, of course, got a huge yawn in our press," Bush said. "We can't reform our own pension system, like Social Security, but they did."
During his visit, Bush kept up his fierce criticism of Iran, which he has offered at almost every stop of his trip. "Iran's role in fomenting violence" in Iraq, he said, "has been exposed. Iranian agents are in our custody, and we are learning more about how Iran has supported extremist groups with training and lethal aid."
In a briefing afterward, Petraeus and Crocker said they remain uncertain about whether Iran has pulled back support for the Shiite militia groups that U.S. officials blame for much of the violence in Iraq. Crocker said that he is willing to meet with his Iranian counterpart at any point but that the Iranian envoy was not committed to a fourth meeting to discuss security in Iraq.
Petraeus said attacks involving roadside explosive devices linked to Iran appeared to have been on the upswing in the past 10 days, although he also said attacks using certain other weapons associated with Iran had declined.
"What we are seeing is what might be characterized as mixed signs or mixed indicators," he said.