Bush, Advisers Make Surprise Visit to Iraq

Posted in United States , Iraq | 03-Sep-07 | Author: Michael Fletcher and Ann Scott| Source: Washington Post

President Bush walks from the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Friday, Aug. 31, 2007, to make a statement on home ownership financing in the Rose Garden. (AP Photo/Ron Edmonds)

AL ASAD AIR BASE, Iraq, Sept. 3 -- President Bush, in a surprise visit to this isolated and well fortified air field in Anbar province Monday, said continued gains in security could allow for a reduction in U.S. troops in Iraq and called on the Iraqi government to follow that success with progress toward rebuilding and political reconciliation.

Bush received an update on Iraq from Gen. David H. Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Iraq, and Ambassador Ryan Crocker, then met with Iraqi government officials and later Sunni tribal leaders here. He said he was "pleased" with what he heard from U.S. officials.

"Gen. Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker tell me if the kind of success we are now seeing continues it will be possible to maintain the same level of security with fewer American forces," Bush said.

Bush affirmed that the United States will not abandon Iraq but warned that progress in reducing violence here must be solidified with political action by the central government.

"We had a good frank discussion," Bush said flanked by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates following his meeting with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and other top Iraqi leaders.

Bush said he urged Iraqi leaders to take concrete actions, such as sharing oil revenues, in order to support "bottom-up reconciliation" in areas such as Anbar province in western Iraq, where violence has plummeted in recent months as Sunni tribes have cooperated with U.S. forces to drive out insurgent groups such as al-Qaeda in Iraq.

"There has been security success, now it's important for government to follow up," Bush said.

At the same time, Bush acknowledged that "the challenges are great" and the pace of progress overall remains "frustrating" both for Iraqis and Americans.

Bush met with several Sunni tribal sheiks from Anbar and said he would tell them that the United States would continue supporting them. "I will reassure them that America does not abandon our friends, and America will not abandon the Iraqi people," he said.

Bush said that he, Gates, and Rice "came here today to see with our own eyes the multiple changes that are taking place in Anbar Province," noting that last summer he was told Anbar was lost, but that Iraqi citizens "refused to give in" and as a result the province is far calmer today.

Besides Rice and Gates, Bush was joined for the meetings by other top military officials, including the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Marine Gen. Peter Pace, and U.S. Middle East commander Adm. William J. Fallon.

"This will be the last big gathering of the president's advisers and Iraqi leaders before the president makes his decisions on the way forward," said Geoff Morrell, Pentagon spokesman. "He's assembled his war council, and they are all convening with Iraqi leaders to discuss the way forward."

In a meeting with a group of cheering Marines before departing Iraq, Bush said that a U.S. pullout from Iraq would not be based on fear or political considerations.

"When we begin to draw down troops from Iraq it will be from a position of strength and success, not from a position of fear and failure," he said. "The decision will be made on a calm assessment by our military commanders based on the conditions on the ground, not a nervous reaction by Washington politicians or poll results in the media."

Bush, who is on his way to a summit in Australia, slipped out of a side door of the White House Sunday for the furtive trip that was aimed at bolstering his position for not drawing down troops from Iraq. "The president felt this is something he had to do in order to put himself in a position to make some important decisions," National Security Adviser Stephen J. Hadley said of the visit.

Bush's trip to Iraq -- his third since the war began in 2003 -- comes at a pivotal moment in the debate over the future of the conflict. Petraeus and Crocker, are scheduled to testify before Congress next week on the situation in Iraq since Bush ordered 30,000 additional troops into the country earlier this year. Their testimony is to be followed on Sept. 15 by a White House report to Congress assessing progress in Iraq.

Bush has argued that the strategy he announced in January, which increased the U.S. presence in Iraq to more than 160,000 troops, is showing signs of success and deserves more time -- an argument he is expected to continue pressing in his report to lawmakers.

But several influential Republicans have joined Democrats in recent months to demand that Bush begin withdrawing U.S. troops. Pointing to a recent Government Accountability Office draft audit as well as a recent intelligence estimate on Iraq, they say that despite some modest security improvements, the troop surge has not been followed by political reconciliation. In addition, critics say, while violence is down in areas where the troop surge was targeted -- mainly in Anbar and Baghdad -- it has increased elsewhere in Iraq.

The Defense Department has disputed some of the GAO findings.

Despite the mixed reports, Bush has argued that Anbar is an example of the kind of progress that could be replicated elsewhere if the United States continues its current strategy. Aides said he intended his visit here to underscore that point. They said he also wanted to press his case to Iraqi leaders before Congress resumes the war debate.

"There is no substitute for that kind of first-hand experience and seeing directly for yourself and talking directly . . . not only to national leaders but provincial leaders," presidential counselor Ed Gillespie told reporters aboard Air Force One. "I think the information that he gets here, hopefully, will be a contribution to the discussion that we will have" later this month.

In Bush's meeting with Iraqi central government leaders he "congratulated them . . . for the achievement" of signing an agreement in the past week to work together on provincial elections, debathification, and other issues but emphasized it was only "a starting point," Hadley told Pentagon reporters.

In a meeting that followed with the Iraqi leaders and Sunni sheiks from Anbar Province, Bush sat at the center of the table and, according to Hadley "encouraged the connection" between the two groups, calling on national leaders to support Anbar's reconstruction and inviting the sheiks to participate in political reconciliation at the national level.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates said that the Anbar sheiks told Bush that the additional 4,000 Marines sent to Anbar as part of the troop surge "helped cement the gains" in reducing security in the province.

He described the interaction between the Iraqi leaders from Anbar and the central government as good and that there was "a sense of shared purpose that they were all in this together."

Gates indicated that he, Pace and Fallon, as well as Petraeus and Crocker, have over the past few days all given their individual assessments of the Iraq to President Bush, to ensure that they were "not filtered."

Gates and the other leaders are also seeking to gauge progress in Anbar, where Sunni tribal leaders last fall began to switch sides and cooperate with U.S. forces to expel extremist insurgent groups from their communities in a movement that is now spreading rapidly in other parts of Iraq.

"This unexpected, almost serendipitous event, this Sunni awakening" has led the tribes to provide thousands of young men to serve in the police and Army in a crucial step that has helped to pacify the region -- declared lost by some U.S. military analysts only a year ago, a senior defense official said.

Attacks were so high in Anbar province last year that they even eclipsed the number in Baghdad, and Anbar has long been the most lethal part of Iraq relative to its small population.

According to a U.S. military officer, attacks in Anbar, calculated on a 90-day average, have fallen by about half since the beginning of the year, from about 70 to 30.

"Nobody's suggesting for a minute that it is now all peaceful and well within the government's control, but its significantly better than it has been in the past," said the senior defense official.

The decision to hold Monday's meeting in Anbar, where the population of 1.2 million people is 95 percent Sunni, is symbolically important as U.S. commanders seek to leverage their embrace of Sunnis that first started here to promote broader political reconciliation at the national level.

Sunni leaders in Anbar have begun to accept as unrealistic "any notion as many had years ago after the fall of Saddam that somehow there would be a status quo ante and a return to Sunni rule," the defense official said. Instead, the official said, they realize that joining in an unified Iraq would bring them jobs and economic benefits, including some of the $10 billion the central government plans to distribute in 2007 to the provinces. "The country is moving forward and it will either move forward with them or without them."

Still, leaders of Iraq's Shiite-dominated government remain wary about the Sunni movement, which has seen thousands of former insurgents join fledging armed security forces not only in Anbar but in northern Iraq and Diyala province in the east as well as around Baghdad, where Shiite sensitivities are highest, U.S. officials say. The government has moved slowly to incorporate the Sunni forces as part of the regular police forces and Army, for example, particularly around Baghdad.

"There are those inside the Maliki government that might want to characterize this as arming a Sunni opposition to the Shia-based Maliki government," said the senior defense official. As a result, U.S. officials see it as vital to persuade Maliki to visit Anbar, where he has rarely traveled since becoming prime minister, to try to turn the grassroots movement into reconciliation at the national level.

"This needs to be an Iraqi process to connect the top-down reconciliation to the bottom-up reconciliation," the senior official said. He said a major goal is to solidify the gains in Anbar through holding provincial elections and speeding the flow of financial and other resources from the central government. "One of the great concerns that we have is that this not be a temporary marriage of convenience," he said.

Sunni tribal sheiks in Anbar province, frustrated with the lack of civil services in the area, said before meeting Bush that they would present a list of demands.

"We welcome him as a friend in Anbar, and we expect a great deal," said Ali al-Khalifa, a sheik in the Dulaimi tribe. "We have drafted a list of demands which we hope Mr. Bush will not be late in realizing, such as providing electricity, water, communications, hospitals, and other infrastructure, as well as complete compensations to the citizens."

Other sheiks said they saw Bush's visit as a celebration of the military's cooperation with former Sunni insurgents, a partnership that most cite as the primary reason for the dramatic decline in violence in Anbar. Maliki has never publicly supported the program, which U.S. commanders compare to a neighborhood watch effort. Many Shiite leaders fear that the program is creating a network of skilled militias that could rise up against the government after American troops leave Iraq.

"Bush's visit to Anbar province is a strong message to the Maliki government in Baghdad and a rebuke to the Shiite opposition to arming the tribesmen to fight al-Qaeda in Iraq," said Farhan Jassem, a sheik from the Dulaimi tribe. "I believe the tribesmen have fulfilled their promises which they had made to the American forces. We have achieved in four months what the United States could not do in four years, destroying al-Qaeda in Anbar."

Although Bush has touted the substantial political and security progress made in Anbar province, he was not scheduled to leave the security of the base to see those changes first hand.

"He is on a tight timeline," said Gen. Doug Lute, a deputy national security adviser, who oversees the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and who traveled here with Bush. "We didn't really approach it like he is going to leave the base."

"He has to get into Australia" for the economic conference he will attend upon leaving Iraq, Gillespie added.

White House officials rejected any suggestion that the president's trip was a publicity stunt aimed at seizing the upper hand in the upcoming congressional debate over the war. For one, they said, members of Congress have visited Iraq in recent weeks. Also, they said, the face-to-face meetings are invaluable.

"There are some people who might try to derive this trip as a photo opportunity," Perino said. "We wholeheartedly disagree."

She said the visit is a chance for the president to meet his commanders, as well as the leaders of Iraq on their turf.

"He will be able to look Prime Minister Maliki in the eye and talk with him about the progress that is starting to happen in Iraq, what we hope to see and the challenges that remain," Perino said.

Staff writer Megan Greenwell in Baghdad contributed to this article.