Even as Pentagon planners search for ways to shift the Iraq mission from combat to support with fewer U.S. troops, Democrats plan to raise their pressure on President Bush to end U.S. involvement in the unpopular war.
Bush signed a war spending bill late Friday that does not set a date for U.S. troop withdrawals. It was a defeat for Democrats who want the president to start pulling troops out of Iraq â€” an idea roundly rejected by administration officials.
"We are there because the security of this nation depends on a successful outcome," Vice President Dick Cheney told U.S. Military Academy graduates Saturday in West Point, N.Y.
The New York Times reported Saturday that the administration is working on ideas for cutting U.S. forces in Iraq by as much as half, to roughly 100,000, by mid-2008.
Citing unidentified administration officials, the report said the mission for the additional combat troops Bush sent in January would be greatly scaled back to focus on training Iraqi troops and fighting al-Qaida.
White House deputy press secretary Dana Perino said some of the troops in the military buildup have not even arrived in Iraq.
"The purpose of the reinforcements that are moving in is to help Iraqis create the very conditions that would allow U.S. troops to begin coming home," Perino said Saturday.
"We, of course, would like to be in a position to bring down troop levels, but certain conditions â€” as assessed by senior military advisers and commanders on the ground â€” need to be met to warrant that."
Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Thursday that the Pentagon is studying how soon U.S. forces in Iraq might shift from mainly a combat mission to one focused more on support roles and requiring fewer troops.
Pace said such a force transition was among changes that could be adopted after Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, reports to Congress and the president in September on whether the current U.S. approach is working.
At a news conference that same day, Bush made no suggestion of an early withdrawal. He did say he would "like to see us in a different configuration at some point in time in Iraq" â€” once Baghdad is brought under control.
Recommendations from the bipartisan Iraq Study Group "appeal to me," the president said. He noted the suggestion that the U.S. military shift from combating the insurgents and focus on training the Iraqi security forces while protecting Iraq's borders and hunting down high-value al-Qaida terrorists.
Bush signed the war spending bill into law on Friday at the Camp David presidential retreat in Maryland, where he is spending part of the Memorial Day weekend.
He had rejected an earlier bill because it contained a timetable for withdrawing troops. The measure he approved provides about $95 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan through Sept. 30 plus billions in domestic projects.
The president's signature, however, doesn't end debate on Capitol Hill over the administration's war policy. Democrats say the drive to bring U.S. troops home is far from over.
"This isn't the first time the administration has talked about redeploying troops from Iraq, but actions speak far louder than off-the-record words," said Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis.
"While any plan to reduce our military presence in Iraq is a step in the right direction," he said, "leaving substantial numbers of U.S. troops in the middle of Iraq's civil war indefinitely is unacceptable."