Wed, Sep 05, 2007 - Page 1 News List

Bush says troop numbers could be reduced in Iraq

OPTIMISTIC The US president said on Monday his advisers had told him that if things continued to improve in Iraq, troop reductions were possible


Flying away from the dusty war zone in Iraq to an Asia summit, US President George W. Bush flirted with the idea that US troop strength could be reduced if security across Iraq improves as it has in Anbar Province, once rife with insurgents.

The president told reporters aboard Air Force One on Monday night that his strategy sessions with US and Iraqi leaders and chats about morale with soldiers and Marines at an air base in western Iraq left him hopeful that positive change is starting in the four-year-old conflict.

The question, he said, is, "Will it last?"

Bush is nearing a decision on how long to maintain the current US troop buildup. He sent 30,000 additional US troops to Iraq to enhance security in Baghdad and Anbar Province. Despite military successes, political progress -- especially at the national level -- is lagging and Democrats and some prominent Republicans want troops called home.

"How many troops does it take to protect us?" Bush asked. "What does it take to have this Iraqi democracy succeed?"

Bush left Iraq and headed to Sydney, Australia, for the APEC forum. Debate over the war will most certainly follow him there.

He begins talks tomorrow, meeting with Australian Prime Minister John Howard, who joined with Bush and former British prime minister Tony Blair in the invasion of Iraq. Howard is facing an aggressive election challenge from opposition leader Kevin Rudd, and Rudd's desire to pull Australian troops out of Iraq will surely be broached in the talks.

Bush also is scheduled to meet with leaders from Japan, China, Russia and South Korea. Some have dubbed this year's APEC the "China summit," a reference to Beijing's rising influence.

"Is this a China summit? The answer is absolutely not," Bush said.

The presidential entourage had barely climbed aboard Air Force One, leaving dusty desert footprints on its blue carpet, when Bush invited reporters to a conference room for a 30-minute chat. He fiddled with a paper clip as he talked about his day at al-Asad Air Base, a Saddam Hussein-era airfield now home to 10,000 US troops, who down bottle after bottle of water in sweltering 38?C-plus heat.

It was Bush's third surprise trip to Iraq. The first two were to Baghdad.

This time he landed in the Iraqi desert, more than 161km west of the capital, to get on-the-ground briefings from advisers, including General David Petraeus, the top US commander in Iraq, and Ryan Crocker, the US ambassador to Iraq.

Crocker and Petraeus are to testify before Congress next week. Their assessment of the conflict, along with a progress report the White House must give lawmakers by Sept. 15, will determine the future course of the war.

"General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker have said that if the security situation continues to improve the way it has, we may be able to achieve the same objectives with fewer troops," Bush said.

He emphasized the word "if." And he didn't say how many troops could be withdrawn, or when.

Bush has refrained from thinking aloud about troop deployments. The president said security improvements in Anbar, where local sheiks have joined with US forces against al-Qaeda, have given him confidence to "speculate on the hypothetical" -- something he repeatedly refuses to do in answering reporters' questions.

Bush said he quizzed the troops -- who cheered him and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice with shouts of "Hooh-rah!" -- about morale. He said some soldiers and Marines complained that rotations were tough on their families, but added, "I wasn't alarmed by what I heard."

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