No decision yet on troop reduction, Bush says

Officials spoke of cutting forces in Iraq in spring

August 12, 2005|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - President Bush said yesterday that no decision has been made on decreasing American troops in Iraq, contradicting military officials who have publicly suggested in the past five months that U.S. troops could begin leaving Iraq as soon as spring.

One top American general told reporters in June that he expected upward of 20,000 U.S. troops to come home from Iraq in spring, while the senior ground commander in Iraq said three weeks ago that "fairly substantial" troop reductions were likely after the December Iraqi elections. And the commander of all U.S. forces in the region told Congress in March that Iraqi forces could take the lead in the counterinsurgency fight in 2005, though he later amended that to next spring or summer. This week, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said "nobody knows" when the Iraqis can take the lead.

Although officials gave some of these projections in news conferences and other public forums, the president yesterday referred to the reports of U.S. troop reductions as "speculation and rumors."

"The position of this government is clear that, as Iraqis stand up, we'll stand down," the president told reporters at his Texas ranch yesterday, after meetings with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

"I've said all along, we'd like to get our troops home as soon as possible," Bush said. "As soon as possible is conditions-based."

Some defense analysts said yesterday they believe the contradictory statements stem from a Pentagon need to see a reduction in its overstretched forces and Bush's reluctance to send a cut-and-run message to the insurgents.

Bush has been under pressure from both Democrats and Republicans to begin drawing down U.S. forces. Recent polls show that support for his handling of the Iraq war is fast eroding amid rising U.S. casualties, overstretched American forces, Army and National Guard recruiting troubles and $5 billion-per-month war costs.

But the president stressed that too few Iraqi troops are ready to handle the security situation on their own. Pulling out U.S. troops, he said, would "send a terrible signal to the enemy" and also "betray the Iraqis."

Dismissing `rumors'

Told that the projections of U.S. troop withdrawals came from senior officers, Bush said: "I think there were rumors. I think there's speculation." He said a joint Iraqi-U.S. commission has been created to evaluate the situation and determine the number of troops needed.

"A decision finally will be made by me," he said.

Although Bush noted that before January's election in Iraq, U.S. troops grew to 160,000 to provide extra security for the vote, he said no decision has been made about whether to repeat such an increase in forces.

He said the "main condition" for U.S. troop withdrawal is whether "the Iraqis will be able to take the fight to the enemy."

Bush was speaking just a few miles from where Cindy Sheehan of California, whose son Casey was killed in Iraq last year, has camped out to urge the president to bring troops home now.

"I sympathize with Mrs. Sheehan," Bush said. "She feels strongly about her position. She has every right in the world to say what she believes.

"I also have heard the voices of those saying, `Pull out now,'" Bush said. "And I've thought about their cry and their sincere desire to reduce the loss of life by pulling our troops out. I just strongly disagree."

Conflicting concerns

Loren Thompson, a defense analyst at the Lexington Institute, said the seeming contradictions between Bush and his military leaders underscore conflicting concerns within the administration: a desire by the Pentagon to draw down troops as soon as possible, against the president's need to send a supportive message to Iraqi politicians.

But the president's position also risks an open-ended troop commitment that leaves Iraqi politicians with little incentive to move forward in building a broad-based government, he added.

A "clear flaw" in the president's approach, Thompson said, is that it allows Iraqis "to determine when Americans will leave and in what numbers." While Bush may see a "national mission" in staying the course in Iraq, Thompson said, "the public seems less and less convinced a positive outcome is possible."

Michael O'Hanlon, a defense analyst at the Brookings Institution, said that Bush's statement reflects the fine line he is walking. The president doesn't want to embolden the insurgency by withdrawing troops, he said. At the same time, Bush hopes to avoid signaling an endless commitment there or bolstering an image of America as an occupier.

"They pull you in opposite directions," said O'Hanlon.

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