WASHINGTON – President Bush, just back from Iraq, dismissed calls for a U.S. withdrawal as election-year politics and refused to give a timetable or benchmark for success that would allow troops to come home.
"It's bad policy," Bush said in a Rose Garden news conference Wednesday, about six hours after he returned from Iraq. "I know it may sound good politically. It will endanger our country to pull out of Iraq before we accomplish the mission."
The news conference was arranged to capitalize on Bush's stealthy 5 1/2-hour trip to Baghdad Tuesday. The visit marked his first meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, and the president said he was impressed with the new leader's plans and character. "I sense something different happening in Iraq," Bush said.
He defended the decision not to tell the prime minister that the U.S. president was in his country until five minutes before they met and denied that it was because of any concern about al-Maliki's inner circle.
"I'm a high-value target for some," Bush said. "I think if there was ample notification that I was coming, perhaps it would have given somebody a chance to plan, and we just didn't want to take that risk."
Bush said he wanted to see a reduction in the deadly violence in Iraq but would not say how much it must drop before troops can begin to withdraw. He offered other ways of measuring progress in Iraq — an increase in oil production or more electricity delivered to cool sweltering homes or growing numbers of Iraqi military units able to handle the fight.
But again, he did not offer any specific targets to measure when Iraqis will be able to govern themselves. Instead, he declared that the government must be able to succeed and that leaving too early would "make the world a more dangerous place."
Democrats criticized Bush for failing to describe plans for a troop withdrawal.
"What we heard from the president today sounds like more of the same — stay the course, which is a slogan, but it is not a plan," said House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi after leaving a White House meeting with Bush and other congressional leaders. "What we would like is an approach that says, when we reach certain milestones, then we begin a responsible redeployment of our troops and that the commitment is not open-ended."
Several proposals were before Congress to draw down U.S. troops, including one by Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., Bush's 2004 election rival, to withdraw U.S. combat forces by year's end.
"Don't bet on American politics forcing my hand, because it's not going to happen," Bush said.
But it won't be too long before U.S. commanders in Iraq make a recommendation on withdrawals, a senior military leader said Wednesday. Bush said he would make the final decision based on recommendations from his commanders.
Army Brig. Gen. Carter Ham told Pentagon reporters that initial plans for the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. George Casey, to make such a recommendation this spring had been delayed by the slow progress in forming the new government in Iraq.
"The government didn't form, so the conditions weren't quite right, so clearly the assessment and the recommendations will be pushed a little bit to the right," said Ham, deputy operations chief for the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "But I don't think it will be too terribly long."
Pentagon officials said Wednesday that there are currently about 127,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, a drop from more than 130,000 in recent days.
Ham said the decline is due largely to the planned return home of a Pennsylvania National Guard unit — the 2nd Brigade of the 28th Infantry Division — which is at the end of its Iraq rotation. He said it should not be interpreted as the beginning of troop withdrawal from Iraq.
Bush said his recent meeting with al-Maliki gave him confidence that the new government will be a capable partner to get the country back on its feet — but he said the Iraqis still need help from U.S. forces.
"If the United States of America leaves before this Iraqi government can defend itself and sustain itself and govern itself, it will be a major blow in the war on terror," Bush said, pounding his fist on a lectern set up in the Rose Garden.
Bush's news conference lasted nearly an hour and included his trademark teasing of reporters. He complimented one on the fancy handkerchief sticking out of his breast pocket and congratulated another as being knowledgeable for a newcomer to the White House.
Bush also poked fun at a reporter for wearing sunglasses during the news conference — and later apologized in a phone call after learning that the reporter wore sunglasses because he's losing his sight to an eye disease.
Unlike typical presidential press conferences that tend to be more wide-ranging, most of the questions focused on Iraq.
Bush said U.S. agents collected new intelligence in recent days following last week's air raid that killed Iraqi terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and are conducting raids to stop further violence.
The president also said that a crackdown in Baghdad that al-Maliki began Wednesday offered the promise of reducing the violence. That crackdown sent tens of thousands of Iraqi police and soldiers patrolling the streets, searching cars and securing roads.
"The terrorists are vulnerable, and we will strike their network and disrupt their operations and continue to bring their leaders to justice," Bush said.
He spoke anew about an idea he first proposed publicly Monday at the Camp David meeting with his war council — an oil royalty trust that would give citizens across Iraq a stake in how the resources are developed. He suggested it might be structured like Alaska's system, where citizens get a share of the state's royalties from the trans-Alaska oil pipeline.
Bush also said he was impressed with al-Maliki's ideas for reconciliation after the war, including former supporters of Saddam Hussein. Bush suggested he would not like to see terrorists given amnesty as part of the process. "If somebody has committed a crime, I don't know whether or not they'll be that lenient, frankly," Bush said.
A senior White House official said the Iraqis have indicated that they're looking for "models" in national reconciliation. Another official said al-Maliki had inquired whether Bosnians or South Africans might be able to provide expertise.