Making progress on Iraq, Bush says

President continues to meet with advisers, plans to consult lawmakers on new strategy

December 29, 2006|By James Gerstenzang | James Gerstenzang,Los Angeles Times

CRAWFORD, Texas -- President Bush said yesterday that he was "making good progress" toward redrawing his strategy for Iraq, a plan that aides said would encompass economic and political elements as well as new security procedures to stem sectarian violence and counter a thriving insurgency.

It appeared increasingly likely, but not certain, that the latest effort to shore up the Iraq campaign would include sending additional U.S. troops there and that the president would launch his new strategy in a speech to the nation when Congress returns to Washington on Thursday or soon after.

Democratic leaders reiterated their opposition to any increase in U.S. troops in Iraq.

Bush held a morning-long meeting of key members of the National Security Council at his office on his Texas ranch, continuing the discussions at lunch. Before making final decisions, Bush said, he wanted to hold additional consultations, including with members of Congress.

Presentation is vital

The administration has attached great importance not only to the substance of the plan but to the way it is presented to - and received by - the public, a tacit acknowledgment of the continuing decline in popular support for the war.

Administration officials also are concerned with the impact that Congress can have on the president's ability to conduct the war once Democratic majorities take control of the agenda in the House and Senate next month.

Sen. Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat who is incoming chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said yesterday that most Democrats would oppose any proposal for a "surge" in the number of U.S. troops.

"The main direction has got to be troop reductions," Levin said, standing by what he said was the primary Democratic proposal to begin withdrawing troops in "four to six months."

Bush pledged to "reach out to Congress" in a three-minute statement to reporters at his ranch after the morning meeting.

High-level meetings

"I fully understand it's important to have both Republicans and Democrats understanding the importance of this mission," he said. Bush was joined by Vice President Dick Cheney; Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice; Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates; Marine Corps Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and four senior White House aides: Stephen J. Hadley, the national security adviser; J.D. Crouch, the deputy national security adviser; White House Chief of Staff Joshua B. Bolten; and counselor Dan Bartlett.

"I'm making good progress toward coming up with a plan that we think will help us achieve our objective," the president said.

A senior administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was discussing internal deliberations and decisions that have not been made final, said Bush was "driving toward making final decisions."

But he said more information was being sought and administration officials were "drilling down into the real details of the various elements - political, economic, security - and how these parts fit together."

"The security element is obviously very complicated," involving the movement of equipment and troops, he said.

The official indicated that at least a temporary troop increase was part of the discussion.

James Gerstenzang writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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