AL-ASAD AIR BASE, Iraq – President Bush raised the possibility Monday of U.S. troop cuts in Iraq if security continues to improve, traveling here secretly to assess the war before a showdown with Congress.
The president was joined by his war cabinet and military commanders at an unprecedented meeting in Iraq over eight hours at this dusty military base in the heart of Anbar province, 120 miles west of Baghdad.
Bush did not say how large a troop withdrawal might be possible or whether it might occur before next spring when the first of the additional 30,000 troops he ordered to Iraq this year are to start coming home anyway. He emphasized that any cut would depend upon progress.
After talks with Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S. commandeer in Iraq, and Ambassador Ryan Crocker, Bush said they “tell me if the kind of success we are now seeing continues, it will be possible to maintain the same level of security with fewer American forces.”
Bush’s trip was a dramatic move to steal the thunder from the Democratic Congress as it returns to Washington with fresh hopes of ending the unpopular war, now in its fifth year. Petraeus and Crocker will testify before lawmakers next week, and then Bush will announce how he intends to proceed in Iraq.
On Air Force One after leaving Iraq, Bush acknowledged that his comment about troop reductions had piqued interest. “Maybe I was intending to do that,” the president said, sitting around a table with reporters in his plane’s conference room as he flew to Australia to meet with Asia-Pacific leaders.
“If you look at my comments over the past eight months, it’s gone from a security situation in the sense that we’re either going to get out and there will be chaos, or more troops,” the president said. “Now the situation has changed where I’m able to speculate on the hypothetical.”
Still, Bush struck a defiant note about demands for bringing troops home.
Standing before troops cheering “hooah,” Bush said decisions on force levels “will be based on a calm assessment by our military commanders on the conditions on the ground-not a nervous reaction by Washington politicians to poll results in the media.