US President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, besieged by complaints about their wartime leadership, were to meet in the US capital yesterday and today to discuss Iraq’s future and the role of their troops there.
Before the meetings, aides were attempting to tamp down any expectations of troop withdrawal announcements, despite public opposition to the war in both the US and Britain.
Blair also planned to talk about Iraq’s plans for an international conference to back its government and would seek Bush’s backing for increased UN support for Iraq, a British official said.
A joint news conference at the White House was set for 8.30am yesterday.
Both Bush and Blair have seen their opinion poll standings drop sharply and are under pressure to bring home some of their soldiers.
Blair’s visit follows a trip to Iraq, where he said coalition troops were in a position to begin handing over control of some Iraqi provinces to local security.
White House press secretary Tony Snow told reporters on Wednesday not to expect either leader to say “we’re going to be out in one year, two years, four years. I don’t think you’re going to get any kind of specific prediction of troop withdrawals. I think you’re going to get a restatement of the general principles under which coalition troops stay or go.”
Blair’s office said the talks would not lead to an agreement on a timetable for withdrawal.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said his forces are capable of taking control of security in all provinces within 18 months, but need more recruits, training and equipment.
Snow said Maliki is “a very aggressive, take-charge kind of guy” whom the US could work with to get Iraqi forces trained as quickly as possible.
“At this point, everybody’s taking the measure of the new government,” Snow said. “What is going to happen, I think it’s very safe to say, is that increasingly American, British and other coalition forces are going to move into support roles as Iraqi forces themselves move into lead roles.”
There are about 132,000 US troops in Iraq; officials have said they would like to have about 100,000 by year’s end. About 8,000 British troops are in Iraq.
Snow said US troops are in Iraq at the invitation of the government and that if Maliki “says he doesn’t need us, we’re not going to stick around.”
Bush said at a news conference on Tuesday evening that the swearing in of Iraq’s new government has opened a door for change. The new Iraqi leaders would assess the country’s security needs and forces, then work with US commanders, he said.
The president has been careful not to commit to a timetable for withdrawals, even though most people in the US this election year say they want fewer US troops in Iraq.