ABOARD AIR FORCE ONE – President Bush says he will not bend to political pressure for troop withdrawals from Iraq and says he told worried leaders in Baghdad the United States will not leave until Iraqi forces can do the job.
"I assured them they didn't need to worry," the president said Tuesday. "I am going to do what I think is right. When I tell you these decisions are going to be made by General (George) Casey, I mean it," the president said. Casey is the top U.S. general in Iraq.
Bush has shied away from embracing suggestions from Casey and other military leaders that the U.S. troop strength in Iraq — now about 132,000 — could be whittled to 100,000 by the end of the year. The war has weakened Bush politically and raised anxieties among Republicans that they will lose seats — and perhaps control — of either the House or Senate in November.
"There's a worry almost to a person that we will leave before they are capable of defending themselves, and I assured them they didn't need to worry," the president said. "I also made it clear that we want to work with their government on a way forward on all fronts."
"They're deeply concerned that the stability provided by our coalition forces will be removed and there will be a vacuum and they're concerned about what goes into the vacuum, and I can understand that concern," he added. "I assured them that we'll keep our commitment. I also made it clear to them that in order for us to keep our commitment, they themselves have to do some hard things, they themselves have to set the agenda."
Slouched in a high-back swivel desk chair in his office on Air Force One, Bush talked about his 5 1/2 hour visit to Baghdad about a half hour after his departure. Security was extraordinary for the takeoff from Baghdad's airport. Bush's plane sat in total darkness on the runway and lifted off with no running lights. The plane had not been completely refueled so that it could get up high faster. As a result, a refueling stop was required en route back to Washington.
Bush sat at his v-curved desk in a rumpled white shirt with no tie. Senior aides stood along the wall or sat on a couch in front of him as he chatted with reporters for 36 minutes.
Bush said it was unrealistic to expect that Iraq could rid itself of violence — the bombings, gunfire and suicide attacks that have become a part of daily life in some cities.
"If the standard is no violence, that's an impossible standard to meet," the president said. "If the standard is a government that is beginning to gain the confidence of the people because they're taking wise action in terms of helping return normalcy, then I believe this government will meet that standard."
Bush's visit came six days after a U.S. air strike killed Al Qaeda terror chief Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and five days after Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki completed his cabinet by naming the ministers of Defense and Interior — events the president's advisers hoped would lead to political progress.
Bush said he made the surprise trip to Baghdad to size up al-Maliki and members of his cabinet. The president came away with a good impression of al-Maliki and his team, which combines Sunni, Shiite and Kurd officials into a unity government.
"I wanted to hear him talk about his way forward in Iraq," Bush said. "I wanted to hear whether or not he was stuck in the past or willing to think about the future. I wanted to get a sense of his capacity to prioritize and rally people to achieve objectives. I came away with a very positive impression. He was a serious-minded fellow who recognized there had to be progress in order for the Iraqi people to believe the unity government could make a difference in their lives. He specifically talked about electricity in Baghdad and we talked about the security situation."
Bush listened to individual cabinet members describe the challenges they face. He referred to them by their jobs — "oil guy," "reconciliation person," "defense minister," "the electricity man," a "lady member of the cabinet" who talked about human rights concerns about coalition forces.
"I came away with the feeling they're plenty capable people," the president said.
Bush didn't say whether he and the prime minister had discussed the timing or scope of a possible U.S. military withdrawal. Al-Maliki, speaking in Arabic, thanked Bush for U.S. protection, but expressed a general hope for the day when American troops would be gone.
"God willing, all of the suffering will be over, and all of the soldiers will be able to return to their countries with our gratitude for what they have offered," al-Maliki said.
Before leaving Baghdad, Bush addressed a group of about 300 cheering U.S. troops assigned in supporting roles to the U.S. Embassy. He thanked them for their work and said a top U.S. priority was now to support the new government.
"Our job is to help them succeed and we will," Bush said.
Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, senior Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, told reporters afterward that Bush's trip "is likely to lead to phased redeployments this year and continuing in the next year."
Rumsfeld said that many U.S. troops have already been brought home. He said officials would meet with Iraqi leaders "in the weeks ahead discussing at what pace we're going to be able to draw down our forces and it will all be done in a very orderly way."