WASHINGTON – President Bush said that a plan to beef up the number of U.S. troops and Iraqi security forces in Baghdad should help the fledgling democratic government counter rising sectarian violence.
The president outlined the plan following a meeting Tuesday at the White House with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
"I've just had a very constructive meeting with the leader of a government that has been chosen by the Iraqi people in free and fair elections," Bush said in a press availability with al-Maliki in the White House East Room.
"I appreciate your vision for a free Iraq and I appreciate your briefing me on your strategy to reduce violence," he said, assuring him that the Bush administration will stand by the Iraqi people. "The prime minister understands he has got challenges and he's identified priorities" and that his government is "not shaken" by the upsurge in violence.
White House officials say the president retains confidence in the Shiite politician despite his inability to improve security. Violence in the country is estimated to be claiming an average 100 lives per day.
The prime minister's plan, put in place six weeks ago, included more U.S. and Iraqi troops in Baghdad, but clearly hasn't worked. Military officials say violence has increased as much as 40 percent during that time.
To assist, U.S. military officials announced Monday that they are adding a U.S. battalion to the city from other parts of the country. More troops on hold at bases internationally will also be deployed.
A senior Defense Department official said that part of a backup force that had been stationed in Kuwait was heading into Iraq. Some U.S. military police companies were being shifted to Baghdad, involving between 500-1,000 troops, as well as a cavalry squadron and a battalion of field artillery troops, said the official, who requested anonymity because the plans yet to be made public.
In addition, the official said, at least two Iraqi military brigades will be brought into Baghdad. Forces are being shifted to meet changing security demands in different neighborhoods "to face the enemy where we think he is," the official said.
Generally about 3,500 troops make up a brigade, and more than 800 are in a battalion.
Bush said the plan will also involve embedding more U.S. military police with Iraqi police units to make them more effective.
"Our military commanders tell me that this deployment will better reflect the current conditions on the ground in Iraq," Bush said. "We also agreed that Iraqi security forces need better tools to do their job. And so we'll work with them to equip them with greater mobility, fire power and protection."
Despite the ongoing violence, which on Tuesday resulted in 13 dead from various attacks and several others wounded, Iraqi and U.S. soldiers captured six members of an alleged "death squad" in Baghdad following the beginning of a military crackdown on sectarian violence.
"We are determined to defeat terrorism and the security plan for Baghdad has entered a second phase, and it's achieving its objectives in hunting terrorism networks and eliminating it," al-Maliki said. He has previously denied his country is slipping into civil war.
Al-Maliki said the discussion about the appropriate levels of military equipment, firearms and institutions has shown an understanding about the challenges facing Iraq and set the basis for stabilizing the country.
"What the Baghdad security plan gains in terms of support, is support from all over the segments of the Iraqi population. ... By monitoring the reality on the ground, we will be able to ensure the success, especially what happens against the innocent people. The Baghdad security forces was able to eliminate many hotspots of crimes and troubles in Baghdad."
U.S. officials are hopeful that control of Baghdad — the political, cultural, transport and economic hub of the country — will determine the future of Iraq, but the city's religiously mixed communities have become the focus of sectarian violence.
Iraq's army and police, which are heavily Shiite, have had trouble winning the trust of residents of majority Sunni neighborhoods. Al-Maliki's plans for curfews and other measures have had no lasting effect.
Al-Maliki did announce that the two agreed to form a joint committee to determine what is needed for Iraqi security forces to become independent and reliable to confront terrorism in his country.
"I appreciate very much your interest in the situation in Iraq and the responsible spirit that have dominated our discussions today," al-Maliki said through a translator.
No public mention was made of discussions the two may have had about trying U.S. soldiers accused of wrongdoing in Iraq. Al-Maliki has said he wants those soldiers to face trial in Iraqi courts. White House officials say the United States is itself aggressively and openly investigating the charges.
Bush said the two leaders discussed the fighting between Israel and Hezbollah, which is based in Lebanon. Bush noted that $30 million in humanitarian aid has already been dedicated by the United States.
"I told him Condi is over there to establish corridors to ensure the delivery of humanitarian aid and essential relief supplies," Bush said, referring to his Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who traveled to Rome Tuesday for a meeting on the Mideast conflict with European leaders.
Al-Maliki, who has been criticized by several Democratic members in the U.S. Congress for remarks he made suggesting Israel was wrong to respond to attacks on its people, said he wants an immediate cease-fire and help from the international community for Lebanon. He added that he wants diplomatic avenues to come up with a solution to the "chronic problems" that have plagued the Middle East.
Al-Maliki, however, did not answer what his position is on Hezbollah, the Iranian and Syrian-backed terror group that has been launching rockets at Israel from civilian communities in southern Lebanon.
"We're talking about the suffering of a people," al-Maliki said of the local residents who have been caught in the crossfire. "We are not in the process of reviewing one issue or another or any government position ... What we're trying to do is to stop the killing and destruction and then we leave the room and the way for the international and diplomatic efforts and international organizations to play the role to be there.
"I'm talking here about the approach that should be used in order to stop this process of promoting hatred. There has to be superior decisions coming from above in order to protect these experiments, particularly democratic experiments, that should be protected by those who are trying to oppose it," he said.