President Bush, drafting an overhaul of his faltering and unpopular war plan, heard Saturday from a Pentagon chief who had just returned from Iraq with a positive impression of Iraqi leaders’ plans to address sectarian violence.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates finished his first week on the job by delivering a report to Bush on the three days he spent talking with Iraqi leaders, U.S. commanders and American soldiers. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Peter Pace, who traveled with Gates to Iraq, helped make the presentation.
The early-morning meeting at Camp David in Maryland’s mountains lasted about an hour. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, national security adviser Stephen Hadley and Hadley’s deputy, J.D. Crouch, who is coordinating the administration’s Iraq review, also participated.
White House officials declined to disclose any details of the conversations. Bush is meeting with his national security team again Thursday at his ranch in Crawford, Texas.
"The president is pleased with the progress being made" to design a new policy, said Blain Rethmeier, a Bush spokesman. "The president is leaving all options on the table on the way forward."
With public support for the war falling as violence and U.S. deaths rise, Bush has been eager to show he is ready to make changes — even while he rejects calls from Democrats, who take control of Congress next month, for significant troop withdrawals to begin soon. The president has talked often in recent weeks about the long commitment America must make to Iraq.
He is expect to announce his revamped Iraq strategy in a speech to the nation between the New Year’s Day and his Jan. 23 State of the Union address.
"If you’re serving on the front lines halfway across the world, it is natural to wonder what all this means for you," Bush said Saturday in his weekly radio address. "I want our troops to know that while the coming year will bring change, one thing will not change, and that is our nation’s support for you and the vital work you do to achieve a victory in Iraq."
There are several signs that a proposal to add thousands of U.S. troops to the 140,000 already in Iraq — as a way to control escalating violence, particularly in Baghdad — is gaining favor at the White House.
The Los Angeles Times reported Saturday that Gen. George Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, and other military leaders in Iraq, who had been the primary voices skeptical of a "surge" in troops, have decided to endorse the idea.
But Lt. Col. Christopher C. Garver, spokesman for Casey, said Saturday, "As of this time, General Casey has not recommended more troops be sent here." Rethmeier would neither confirm nor deny the Times story.
Bush has said he has changed his mind and now believes the Army and Marine Corps should be increased in overall size. This process would take years, but still could address some doubts in the military about the drain of even a short-term boost in Iraq.
And while saying he has not decided whether to deploy more U.S. soldiers, the president gave another nod to military leaders this week by making clear he agrees that any such troop infusion must have a mission that is clear and achievable.
During Gates’ trip to Iraq, several soldiers told him they thought a short-term increase in troop levels would help. But the defense secretary repeatedly declined to say whether he would recommend such an increase.
Some important players at the Pentagon remain unconvinced that a significant troop increase would help and, in fact, worry it could do more harm than good by giving Iraqis incentive not to make their own inroads. Democrats and other critics also fear American troops will remain mired unless the Iraqis are forced by the prospect of an imminent withdrawal of U.S. soldiers to make progress.
While in Baghdad, Gates did praise Iraqi leaders for having "some concrete plans in mind" to deal with the deadly militias that have brought the country to the brink of civil war between the Shiite majority and Sunni minority. He left Casey with the assignment of putting "flesh on those bones" in consultations over the next few days with the Iraqi government, which has had little success so far reining in the militias or quelling the bloodshed.
Bush has said all along that U.S. troops cannot come home until Iraqis are able to secure and defend their own country without significant American assistance.
The military component of Bush’s upcoming plan has drawn the most attention, but it is only one part of what is expected to be a multi-pronged strategy.
It also will include a way to improve the dismal economic picture in Iraq and a new approach to both diplomacy in the region and to the delicate — and deadly — political situation inside Iraq.