By Karen DeYoung and Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, March 25, 2008
As the American military death toll in Iraq reached 4,000, President Bush conferred yesterday with top U.S. officials in Washington and in Baghdad and vowed in a public statement that the outcome of the war "will merit the sacrifice."
Bush held a two-hour videoconference with Gen. David H. Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker. Petraeus reiterated his plan to halt U.S. troop withdrawals, begun late last fall, at the end of July. At that point, he has said, he will "evaluate" whether Iraqi forces and a reduced number of U.S. troops can maintain the lower levels of violence.
"We have every desire to continue with the withdrawal of forces" at some time after July, one military official said. "The issue will be once we remove over 25 percent of combat power plus other associated units . . . we let the dust settle . . . and look to see where we're at," he said, adding that the evaluation period would probably be at least six weeks. Petraeus has offered no guarantee that conditions will allow further withdrawals before Bush leaves office.
In congressional testimony next month, Petraeus and Crocker are expected to describe continued but slow improvement in military and political conditions, even as recent weeks have seen an increase in suicide bombings, along with Sunday's renewal of rocket attacks on Baghdad's Green Zone, where the U.S. Embassy and much of the Iraqi government are located.
Among the wounded in four separate attacks were an American military contractor and an embassy employee from Jordan, both of whom remain in serious condition, a U.S. official in Baghdad said. Military officials said the munitions were Iranian-made, fired from northeastern Baghdad by renegade Shiite militia groups.
Late Sunday night, the U.S. command in Baghdad announced that four soldiers had been killed by a makeshift bomb in southern Baghdad, bringing the total number of U.S. troops killed to 4,000 since the war began in March 2003. Dozens of Iraqis were also killed in violence around the country Sunday.
Overall attacks in Iraq have sharply declined in Iraq, but the trend has begun to plateau over the past three months -- car bombings have decreased, but suicide bombings have increased. Military officials said that Petraeus will tell Congress that the withdrawal, which has now reached about 9,000 troops, will continue with three additional brigades to be withdrawn without replacement by July 31.
Although administration officials have said that U.S. troop strength at that point should be about where it was before a "surge" in deployments began last spring -- approximately 130,000 -- the military official said the net number remaining may be larger. "They're in the process now of trying to scrub the numbers," he said of Petraeus's command in Baghdad. "Figuring out boots on the ground is difficult because . . . units come in at different sizes, people have left, people have been wounded."
There are similar difficulties, he said, in determining the "battlefield geometry" that will enable the withdrawal of entire combat brigades. Brigades are seldom deployed intact, and their battalions are often scattered. While one battalion could be withdrawn without replacement, others may have to be replaced by U.S. or Iraqi forces from elsewhere.
During his testimony on April 8 and 9, Petraeus expects to present Congress with firm numbers on how many U.S. troops will leave Iraq and how many will remain by the end of July.
Crocker, who in previous testimony has cautioned against hopes of rapid progress, is expected to describe some political and economic achievements but to say that much work remains. In a mid-March interview with The Washington Post, he described Iraqi political and economic institutions as "like everything else here, still very much under development."
Another senior U.S. diplomat offered positive indicators yesterday, saying that Iraqis are "spending increasingly more money than we are" on reconstruction and some military programs. "We're not starting any new projects and [the Iraqis] are getting incrementally better," he said. Iraq's "Arab neighbors are gradually engaging, although not enough. They're not embracing Maliki the way they ought to," he added, referring to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
After speaking with Petraeus and Crocker yesterday morning from the White House, Bush attended a briefing by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at the State Department on cooperation between military and civilian officials in Iraq and elsewhere. In a statement to reporters, he spoke of the U.S. civilians who have died in Iraq and said: "I will vow so long as I am president to make sure that those lives were not lost in vain."
Bush will attend a similar briefing by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and military leaders today at the Pentagon, but administration officials said they do not expect any new decisions or departures from current policy.
One official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that after months of friction among civilian and military leaders -- including over concerns about overall stress on the military -- there is little debate over the basic Iraq strategy for the next six months. The only real question, he said, is how long the "pause" in withdrawals after July will last.
In Turkey yesterday, Vice President Cheney told ABC News that "there's no reason now to decide what the force level is going to be in December of '08." The criterion, he said, "is how do we make certain we succeed in Iraq? It may be that we can make judgments about reductions down the road. . . . But I don't think [Bush] is likely to want to try to say now what the force level ought to be at the end of the year."