Bush defends Iraq strategy

President describes opposition to troop increase as ill-timed

February 15, 2007|By David Nitkin and Matthew Hay Brown | David Nitkin and Matthew Hay Brown,Sun reporters

WASHINGTON -- President Bush delivered a staunch defense yesterday of his decision to send more troops to Iraq and dismissed congressional opposition to the increase as ill-timed and of little consequence.

"People are prejudging the outcome of this," Bush said on the second day of debate in the House of Representatives over the wisdom of his latest Iraq strategy. "They have every right to express their opinion, and it is a non-binding resolution."

But illustrating the difficult position he faces with public opinion opposed to his handling of the Iraq war, the president declined to directly criticize lawmakers who question the war effort and are preparing to vote on the measure, which is expected to pass later this week.

"Somebody who doesn't agree with my policy is just as patriotic a person as I am," Bush said. "Can somebody say, `We disagree with your tactics or strategy, but we support the military?' Absolutely. Sure."

The president insisted that additional troops are needed to provide security in the violence-torn Iraqi capital and prevent chaos and extremism from dominating the country.

"Part of the strategy in Baghdad is to clear, and then to hold, and then to build," Bush said. "We've been pretty good about clearing in the past. We haven't been good about holding - `we' being the Iraqi and coalition forces."

Bush's comments, in his first news conference since Dec. 20, appeared unlikely to mollify House Democrats - and some Republicans -pushing for a change in direction in Iraq.

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer opened yesterday's debate by cataloguing what he said were Bush's failures in Iraq and saying that voters "had sent a resounding message for change" when they ended 12 years of Republican control of Congress in November.

"This troop escalation does not represent a new strategy," said Hoyer, of Southern Maryland. "In fact, we have tried at least four escalations in the past, none of which succeeded in quelling violence. The time for more troops was four years ago. ... And now, unfortunately, what the president promises is too little, too late."

Debate was scheduled to continue today on the resolution, which expresses support for U.S. troops but opposes Bush's plan to send more to Baghdad. Hoyer described the vote tomorrow as a "clarifying moment for the members to say precisely where they stand."

Many Republicans called it a meaningless exercise that would demoralize the troops. Rep. Kay Granger of Texas warned of the cost of failure in Iraq.

"Let there be no mistake. Iraq is but one front in a long war against a fanatical enemy who does not value human life and who seeks to destroy those who do," Granger said. "Failing to secure Iraq will result in massive instability in the Middle East, which will undoubtedly spill over to the rest of the world."

But not all Republicans oppose the measure. As many as several dozen are expected to vote for the resolution, some of whom were given highly visible daytime speaking slots to express their support for the Democratic resolution.

One of those Republican war critics, Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest of the Eastern Shore, called for "a surge of diplomacy" that would include talks with Iran and Syria.

"Ask yourself this question," he said. "Is a century of dialogue without resolution better than one day on the battlefield?"

Republicans opposed to the resolution warned that the vote was the first step toward cutting funds for U.S. troops.

Hoyer said Democrats would not cut funding for troops in harm's way. But in the past, he has called this week's debate a first step in changing direction in Iraq, a process that could include blocking funds for future deployments.

Bush played down the significance of tomorrow's vote. Instead, he pointed to his request for more than $90 billion in additional funding for troops and security in Iraq.

The funding measure, part of Bush's budget plan for 2008, is expected to be taken up by Congress next month. It includes $3.8 billion for Iraqi security forces, and $3.6 billion for Army tactical and support vehicles.

"Our troops are counting on their elected leaders in Washington, D.C., to provide them with the support they need to do their mission," Bush said. "We have a responsibility, all of us here in Washington, to make sure that our men and women in uniform have the resources and the flexibility they need to prevail."

Bush said he hoped the "non-binding resolution doesn't try to turn into a binding policy that prevents our troops from doing that which I have asked them to do."

Asked by a reporter whether he had heard that some soldiers are becoming demoralized as they embark on their second, third and fourth tours of duty in Iraq, Bush said that he was aware of a different morale problem: among family members here at home.

Bush said that "our troops, who have volunteered to serve the country, are willing to go into combat multiple times. But the concern is with the people on the home front. And I can understand that."

Bush said he wants U.S. troops out of Iraq "as quickly as possible. But I also want to make sure that we get the job done."

david.nitkin@baltsun.com

matthew.brown@baltsun.com

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