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Bush Signals Troop Level May Stay Stable

By Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 1, 2008

LAS VEGAS, Jan. 31 -- President Bush asserted Thursday that he would not be pressured into making further troop cuts in Iraq beyond the five combat brigades already scheduled to come home by the middle of the summer.

"We have come too far in this important theater, in this war on terror, not to make sure that we succeed," Bush told a friendly audience at an event sponsored by a conservative think tank. "I will be making decisions based upon success in Iraq. The temptation, of course, is for people to, you know, say, 'Well, make sure you do the politically right thing.' That's not my nature. That's not exactly what we're going to do."

The comments were the latest indication from the administration that it may keep the number of troops in Iraq at roughly the same level they were before last year's buildup of U.S. forces, possibly through the end of Bush's presidency. Under existing plans, the levels are gradually falling about 5,000 troops a month, from roughly 160,000 to 130,000 by July -- or approximately where they stood before Bush sent reinforcements to Iraq seeking to curtail spiraling sectarian violence.

Last fall, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates suggested that troop levels could continue falling, reaching 100,000 by 2009. But U.S. commanders in Iraq have suggested they would like to see a pause to determine whether recent security gains have taken root, and in recent statements -- such as his comments here -- Bush has indicated that he looks favorably upon such an approach.

The continuing signs that there will be a sizable U.S. troop presence in Iraq beyond the Bush presidency is becoming an increasing source of consternation for Capitol Hill Democrats, who have complained of recent steps from the White House to forge a long-term U.S. plan for Iraq.

"Presidents in the past such as Dwight Eisenhower knew that success meant creating a proper diplomatic environment in order to end a nation's military involvement," Sen. James Webb (D-Va.) said Thursday in response to the president's comments. "We are emphatically not seeing that kind of leadership from George W. Bush."

Democrats have criticized White House plans to forge a long-term security accord with the Iraq government, saying Bush wants to tie the hands of the next president -- a characterization the White House sharply disputes.

Democratic lawmakers have also complained about the "signing statement" Bush issued Monday in signing the defense authorization bill, in which the president suggested he might ignore language that bars funding for permanent U.S. bases in Iraq as well as U.S. control over Iraqi oil resources.

White House officials said their primary concern was that the bill's language regarding oil revenue could theoretically inhibit them from protecting Iraqi oil fields should that become necessary. "The bottom line is this: We do not need and we will not seek permanent bases in Iraq," said White House spokeswoman Dana Perino. "This is our policy and has always been our policy."

In statements this week, lawmakers castigated Bush for his latest signing statement. "The suggestion that he may disregard a law overwhelmingly approved by Congress, coupled with the president's intent to sign a long-term agreement obligating the United States to defend the Iraqi government from internal and external threats, only reaffirms to Americans that there is no end in sight to the war in Iraq," said Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Bush was in Las Vegas to continue three days of fundraising for the Republican Party and to highlight his recent State of the Union message. He also addressed the criticism that improvements in Iraqi security over the past year have not produced a corresponding political reconciliation, noting the recent passage of a law allowing former Baathists to return to government service, Iraqi work on developing a budget and the sharing of oil revenue throughout the country.

"You're watching a democracy evolve," Bush said.

"And it's important that we help them."

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