CRAWFORD, Texas – President Bush is mapping out defense strategy with his top defense advisers as U.S. deaths in Iraq inch toward 1,000 and the election campaign focuses intently on he and Democrat John Kerry's (search) credentials for keeping the nation safe.
"This is a chance for the president and other military leaders to get outside of Washington, D.C., and have a good detailed discussion about key defense priorities," White House press secretary Scott McClellan (search) said of the meeting Monday at the president's ranch.
Vice President Dick Cheney (search), Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld (search), Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Richard Myers (search) and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice (search) were among those set to attend. Gen. George Casey (search), the senior U.S. officer in Iraq, and Gen. John Abizaid (search), head of the U.S. Central Command, planned to participate via a video conference hookup.
Bush's fourth annual meeting on defense priorities focuses on Iraq and threats to national security in the future. The candidates' campaigns, meanwhile, are embroiled in a debate over the past.
Ads financed by Bush supporters allege that, in the late 1960s, Kerry received an early exit from combat in Vietnam for "superficial wounds." Kerry backers claim the Bush campaign has ties to Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, the anti-Kerry group running the ads in three states.
The Bush re-election campaign has denied any links. Moreover, the White House says Kerry has benefited from more than $62 million worth of similar advertising against the president.
The war of words between the two campaigns is playing out as Bush spends a week at his ranch relaxing and preparing for next week's Republican National Convention (search) in New York.
At the defense meeting, a likely discussion topic was on rotating U.S. troops and a future reduction in forces, said Dan Goure, a military analyst with the Lexington Institute, a public policy think tank in Virginia.
About 130,000 U.S. troops are in Iraq. More than 940 U.S. service members have died since the invasion in 2003.
"They're going to be doing another rotation in about nine months, so they'll be thinking through that whole policy — what forces they have, what forces they're going to bring on, how many will be National Guardsmen — that kind of thing," Goure said.
Another likely topic, he said, will be completing the training of Iraqi security forces, who can help secure the nation for elections at the end of the year. Creating functional internal security forces in Iraq is critical to withdrawing American, British and allied troops.
Goure said other issues could include security in Afghanistan in anticipation of upcoming elections, terrorism and the overall makeup of U.S. forces during the next decade.
A week ago, Bush announced a troop realignment plan that ultimately would bring up to 70,000 troops — plus about 100,000 family members and civilian workers — back to the United States beginning in 2006. The changes would not directly affect the roughly 150,000 troops involved in or supporting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
On Sunday, a handful of people opposed to the war in Iraq gathered a few miles from Bush's ranch at a home dubbed the "Peace House." It's has been run since last year by peace activists who don't want Bush to be the only voice in Crawford.
Amira Matsuda, 46, an Iraqi-born mother of four from Plano, Texas, said that while Bush talks of liberation and reconstruction, her homeland is "falling apart." She said many Iraqis think those being trained for the Iraqi security force are siding with Americans.
"That's why you see in Najaf police security forces being killed or kidnapped," she said. "Stability in my opinion will never take place because people are not happy with the occupation."