President George W. Bush convenes a war council this week hoping to build momentum after Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s death, but the big question overhanging the talks is when U.S. troops will return from Iraq.
Bush will hold two days of high-level consultations at Camp David starting on Monday to reassess strategy on Iraq as he struggles with an increasingly unpopular war that has dragged down his approval ratings in a congressional election year.
Surrounded by top advisers, he may also have to contend with fallout from the suicides of three Arabs held at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo. Their deaths on Saturday triggered new international calls to close the detention camp.
Iraq, however, will dominate the agenda at the presidential retreat, where Bush wants his national security team to meet away from their normal daily distractions.
His administration is eager to capitalize on the killing of Zarqawi, leader of al Qaeda in Iraq and mastermind of some of the bloodiest bombings since a 2003 U.S.-led invasion, as well as the long-awaited creation of an Iraqi unity government.
In a videoconference on Tuesday, Bush and his chief aides, including Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, are expected to press Iraqi leaders not to squander the chance to assert their authority and win the confidence of Iraqis.
“There’s a window here in which it’s important for them to show success, and that is exactly why the meeting is taking place now, to make sure we are doing everything we can to ensure the success,” White House counselor Dan Bartlett said.
Although Bush has tempered expectations that Camp David will yield a decision on troop reductions, no one is ruling out the possibility that future troop levels will be discussed, even as insurgent attacks persist in Iraq.
Gen. George Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, predicted on Sunday that American forces would scale back gradually in coming months if the new government holds together and the Iraqi army makes progress. He and other senior officers will join the Camp David conference by video link on Monday.
Despite pressure from Democrats for a plan to bring troops home soon, Bush has offered no timetable for a withdrawal of the 131,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. He insists U.S. forces cannot leave until the Iraqis can secure their own country.
Military commanders had hoped to reduce the U.S. presence to 100,000 troops by the end of the year, but an unrelenting insurgency and sectarian violence have cast doubt on that.
Zarqawi’s killing in a U.S. air strike on Wednesday was a desperately needed military success for Bush, who has seen public disenchantment with the war increase as American casualties — now topping 2,400 — have mounted.
But he has warned the death of one enemy will not end the war. Al Qaeda in Iraq on Sunday vowed to carry out attacks to “shake the enemy and rob them of sleep,” and a car bomb killed six people in Baghdad soon after the threat was made.
(Additional reporting by Steve Holland)
© Reuters 2006