Bush sees U.S. in Iraq past '08

Troop withdrawal is a decision for `future presidents'

March 22, 2006|By JAMES GERSTENZANG | JAMES GERSTENZANG,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- President Bush said yesterday that U.S. troops would remain in Iraq beyond his presidency, a message that could complicate his efforts to reassure an increasingly skittish public that the U.S. military deployment there is not open-ended.

The complete withdrawal of U.S. troops "of course is an objective, and that will be decided by future presidents and future governments of Iraq," Bush said at a White House news conference that was dominated by questions about Iraq.

It was the fourth consecutive day that the president commented publicly about the war there, a communications offensive that comes as public opinion polls show pessimism about Iraq rising and Bush's approval ratings falling to new lows.

The president had not previously said that the military role would continue beyond the end of his second term, on Jan. 20, 2009, a White House spokesman said.

"There will be more tough fighting ahead," the president said, but "if I didn't believe we could succeed, I wouldn't be there. I wouldn't put those kids there."

The president also said that the sectarian division between Shiite and Sunni Muslims that has grown increasingly violent is not a civil war - contradicting a description used over the weekend by the former Iraqi prime minister, Ayad Allawi, who had allied himself with Bush.

Referring to the spasms of violence that shook Iraq in the days after the Golden Mosque, a Shiite shrine, was destroyed a month ago, Bush said: "This is a moment where the Iraqis had a chance to fall apart, and they didn't. And that's a positive development."

"The Iraqis took a look and decided not to go to civil war," he said. "The army didn't bust up into sectarian divisions. The army stayed united."

In addition, he said, religious leaders denounced violence, and political leaders representing different factions committed themselves to a unified government.

The news conference was the president's second this year.

Speaking energetically, gesticulating frequently, he turned nearly every question on Iraq into a megaphone for his latest message on the war: That he understands Americans' concerns about its progress and cost, but that it must be fought to deny terrorists an Iraqi base from which to attack the United States. In addition, Bush says, U.S. troops and Iraqi allies are succeeding against the insurgents.

In recent days, multiple polls have found that roughly 30 percent of those surveyed think the United States should immediately begin removing troops from Iraq, roughly twice the percentage favoring a withdrawal two years ago and an indication of the political turmoil the war could cause for Bush's supporters in the November elections.

As difficult as a continued deployment might be for Bush's political allies in the congressional elections in November, an even greater worry is whether Americans will believe the prospects for success in Iraq are good.

Frank Donatelli, a Republican political consultant, said in an e-mail exchange: "This `right direction/wrong track' perception will be key to how voters perceive our mission in Iraq. Remember, the public turned against Vietnam not because of the large troop commitment, but rather because they ultimately felt the war was unwinnable."

As the war in Iraq enters its fourth year, Bush has launched a campaign intended to draw attention to signs of that success, to counter the almost consistently bad news spread across news pages and television screens and the still sinking support turning up in public opinion surveys here.

Yesterday, just hours before Bush spoke, insurgents staged one of their boldest raids in months, blasting a City Hall compound in Baqubah, in Iraq's Sunni Arab heartland, firing mortars and grenades and freeing 30 prisoners from the jail. At least 15 policemen and guards were killed.

Against that backdrop, Bush said: "We have a plan for victory, and it's important we achieve that plan."

On Sunday, Gen. George P. Casey, the senior U.S. commander in Iraq, said on the television show Fox News Sunday that the number of troops would not drop below the current level of roughly 130,000 over the next few months, but that it would drop "over the course of 2006 and into 2007," based on conditions in Iraq.

Bush acknowledged the scale of the mission.

"I understand how tough it is - don't get me wrong," he said. "I hear it from our troops; I read the reports every night."

James Gerstenzang writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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