Bush and Blair to discuss scaling back troops in Iraq

Meeting is as much to bolster each other as to strategize, analysts say

May 25, 2006|By JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS | JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS,SUN REPORTER

WASHINGTON -- President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, their images tarnished by public discontent over the war in Iraq, will discuss scaling back U.S. and British troops in the country when they meet at the White House today.

Officials say the two will not announce any specific withdrawal plans but are expected to highlight the establishment of the new Iraqi government as a turning point that could pave the way for reducing the size of the American and British force. Bush and Blair plan to hold an evening news conference to amplify their upbeat message.

But even as U.S. troops continue to train Iraqi security forces, sectarian violence threatens to derail plans for U.S. and British troops to draw back into support roles and substantially reduce their numbers before the year is out, analysts said.

Bush and Blair are "in a real bind, because, on the one hand it's clearly the desire of the British and the American and the Iraqi governments to lower the coalition profile and to put the Iraqis in the lead," said James F. Dobbins, a defense and foreign policy specialist at the RAND Corp. "But as long as the Iraqi security forces remain not so much untrained but divided in their loyalties, it's difficult to do this on more than a very incremental, very slow basis."

That is one reason the president and his top aides are cautious in their public statements about whether and when U.S. troops can begin coming home.

"It's premature to be talking about planned withdrawals," White House press secretary Tony Snow said yesterday. Instead, he said, Bush and Blair will provide "a restatement of the general principles under which coalition troops stay or go."

He and other senior officials note that Iraq's new prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, has said he wants Iraqi troops to take over security responsibilities as quickly as possible. Al-Maliki said this week that he wants Iraqis to take the lead by the end of 2007.

"We serve there at the pleasure of the Iraqi government," Snow said. "If [al-Maliki] says he doesn't need us, we're not going to stick around."

Bush said earlier this week that with al-Maliki's government only days old, it was too early to discuss security needs with U.S. commanders. He said the new government's creation was an opportunity "to take a new assessment about the needs necessary for the Iraqis."

There are about 133,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, and commanders have long hoped to reduce the number to 100,000 by the end of the year. There are also about 8,000 British troops.

Blair, who is to arrive in Washington after a visit to Iraq that included talks with al-Maliki, meets with Bush at a moment of weakness for both men, their popularity and influence sagging amid scandals and party divisions at home. The Times of London branded the meetings a "lame duck summit," while The Economist called Bush and Blair an "Axis of feeble," a play on the president's 2002 "axis of evil" speech about threats from Iraq, Iran and North Korea.

Republican strategists, including top Bush adviser Karl Rove, acknowledge that the war is weighing down the public's view of Bush and his party. Rove recently addressed Bush's tanking poll numbers by arguing that "it's a sour time" and added, "I think the war looms over everything."

Bush told a questioner in Chicago this week that public distrust of the government stems from "an unease in America now, and the reason why is because we're at war."

Against that backdrop, and with bloodshed continuing in Iraq, Bush and Blair are meeting as much to bolster each other as to strategize about the war, analysts said.

"It's a kind of mutual moral support. ... They're trying to shore each other up," said Larry Diamond, a Stanford University foreign policy specialist who formerly advised the U.S.-led interim government in Iraq. "It's a way of showing that there's progress, shining a bright public spotlight on the mutual perception between Britain and the United States that there is political progress, and that cynics are overly skeptical."

The message of the visit, Diamond said: "Be patient. We're now able to envision on the horizon, though we can't say precisely when, a time when we can bring our troops home, a light at the end of the tunnel."

Bush and Blair are also likely to discuss what RAND counterinsurgency specialist Seth G. Jones called "downsizing and Iraqization of this whole process" - what goals must be met in order to shift responsibility to the Iraqis and ramp down the U.S. and British presence, regardless of whether the violence abates.

"The benchmarks now being used in London and in Washington are political steps rather than security," Jones said, adding that the shift is a result of "a recognition that things are violent and that it takes a long time to win" against an insurgency.

Bush and Blair have both hailed developments in Iraq before, only to see violence surge and public anxiety at home swell in the aftermath. Some analysts said they expected today's meeting to be no different.

"None of these milestones have turned out to be the real stabilizing moment that they hoped, expected and promised that they would be," Diamond said.

julie.davis@baltsun.com

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