CAMP DAVID, Md. – Looking for ways to help Iraq's new government succeed and an avenue for the United States to eventually pull out of Iraq, President Bush met with his top military and national security advisers as well as most of his Cabinet members Monday at Camp David, Md.
The Catoctin Mountain retreat is about an hour outside Washington, D.C., in an area where cell phones and blackberry devices don't work so the president has the full attention of his aides.
During a break between sessions, Bush congratulated the U.S. forces on killing Al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. He told reporters he was also listening to recommendations from commanders on the ground, adding that he didn't expect hostilities to cease right away.
"I just want to thank you all very much for remaining in theater, and working as hard as you are. I think you are making a significant difference. You're making a significance difference. And, again, please give me best congratulations to the troops on the ground for bringing Zarqawi to justice," Bush said.
"I fully recognize that's not going to end the war. On the other hand, it was a major blow to Al Qaeda and the killers and terrorists that are trying to spread violence and stop the emergence of a new democracy," he added.
The "war council" retreat was actually scheduled before Zarqawi was killed, but now offered the president the opportunity to work with commanders to take advantage of the terror leader's demise. Aides say the president wants to capitalize on what is probably a six-month window to convince Iraqis that their national identity is more important than their sectarian differences.
Bush has instructed his Cabinet secretaries to partner with their Iraqi counterparts to make life better for ordinary Iraqis. For instance, that means Energy Secretary Sam Bodman will work with Iraq's energy secretary to find ways to keep the power on in Baghdad for more hours each day. Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne will work with his counterpart to try and help Iraqis develop more efficient oil production.
White House officials have said announcements of force reductions are not expected at the two-day work session. Yet, the top U.S. commander in Baghdad predicted Sunday that coalition troops could gradually move out of the country in the coming months.
Though Gen. George Casey, head of the Multinational Force in Iraq, said it's possible some U.S. troops could come home before the end of the year, he says it's also likely the United States will have to add forces in certain areas as they did last month when they beefed up the U.S. presence in Anbar province.
"It's not likely. But as I've said all along, I constantly evaluate the situation. And if I think I need more, I'll ask for more. If I think I need less, I'll tell the president I need less," Casey told "FOX News Sunday."
The president's military advisers are also studying Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's claim that Iraqis could actually take control of security in all of Iraq by the end of next year. They are looking at his plans province by province to see if it's feasible and what would have to happen to make them work. Despite al-Maliki's confidence in his fledgling army, Bush's aides say they don't expect to talk about troop withdrawal.
With 130,000 U.S. troops in the country, Iraq's national security adviser said Sunday that he believed the number of coalition forces would drop below 100,000 by year's end. Mouwafak al-Rubaie also said the majority of coalition forces would leave before mid-2008.
Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., a critic of U.S. involvement in Iraq, said Monday that now is "a perfect time" for a troop withdrawal. "People want a change in this country ... a change in direction, and I hope the president hears that and I hope the Iraqis ask us to leave," Murtha said on ABC's "Good Morning America."
"Even this attack on Zarqawi happened from the air," Murtha said. "There's no real need for us to be inside the country."
The Camp David meeting began as insurgents in Iraq stepped up attacks to show they weren't defeated by the U.S. air strike that killed Zarqawi near Baqouba last Wednesday.
The re-evaluation of the administration's Iraq policy started with a long day of meetings for Bush and his team, which was lasting through dinner Monday night. On Tuesday, the sessions are scheduled to conclude with a joint meeting via videoconference with Bush's Cabinet and top ministers in al-Maliki's new government.
FOX News' Wendell Goler and The Associated Press contributed to this report.