AL-ASAD AIR BASE, Iraq – During a surprise visit to Iraq, President Bush on Monday addressed an animated military base in what was once a Sunni insurgent stronghold and said it would be possible to reduce troops in Iraq if progress being made there continues.
Bush gave the troops a Labor Day greeting, thanking them for their hard, and often deadly work there. He also sought to assure them that he will be listening to military commanders, not Washington officials, when it comes to decide when to withdraw troops.
"Every day you are successful here in Iraq draws nearer to the day when America can begin calling you and your fellow servicemen home," Bush said.
Bush received a "hoorah" when he said he would not base his deployment decision on "nervous reaction by Washington politicians to poll results in the media."
"When we begin to draw down troops from Iraq, it will be from a position of strength and success, not from a position of fear and failure. To do so otherwise would embolden our enemies and make it more likely that they would attack us at home," Bush said.
Earlier, Bush told reporters that his top deputies there have said it is possible to reduce troops if progress continues.
Bush said he had just received updates from Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker, the two U.S. officials who are to give a highly anticipated report to Congress next week on progress there. He also met with top Iraqi officials including Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
"I was pleased with what I heard. The strategy we put into place earlier this year was designed to help the Iraqis improve their security so that political and economic progress could follow. And that is exactly the effect it is having in places like Anbar," Bush said.
While noting "we can't take this progress for granted," Bush said there is hope that troop levels can be reduced.
"Gen. Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker tell me if the kind of success we are now seeing continues, it will be possible to maintain the same level of security with fewer American forces," Bush said.
Bush stayed for seven hours before taking off again, heading to Australia to attend an economic conference.
Bush spent time with both U.S. and Iraqi leaders Monday in the former hotbed of the Sunni insurgency. The president, joined on the secret trip by Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, did not say how many troops could be withdrawn or how soon.
Bush stood in front of two Humvees near a dusty tarmac of this desert outpost in western Iraq, about 120 miles west of Baghdad, to share his latest views about the war. He urged Congress to wait until they hear testimony from Crocker and Petraeus and see a White House progress report due by Sept. 15 before judging the result of his decision to send an extra 30,000 troops to Iraq.
"I urge members of both parties in Congress to listen to what they have to say," he said. "We shouldn't jump to conclusions until the general and the ambassador report."
Bush urged Iraqi officials to respond to progress in Anbar where violence has abated after Sunni tribal leaders and former insurgents teamed up with U.S. troops to hunt down Al Qaeda and other extremists.
He also met with Sunni tribal sheiks and members of Anbar's governing body.
"I'm going to reassure them that America does not abandon our friends," he said.
To a large degree, the setting was the message: Bringing al-Maliki, a Shiite, to the heart of mostly Sunni Anbar province was intended to show the administration's war critics that the beleaguered Iraqi leader is capable of reaching out to Sunnis, who ran the country for years under Saddam Hussein.
Even Republicans are pressuring Bush on troop cuts. Virginia Republican Sen. John Warner surprised the White House by declaring he wants some U.S. troops to start coming home from Iraq by Christmas. He said he may support Democratic legislation ordering withdrawals if Bush refuses to set a return timetable soon.
The temperature topped 110 degrees Fahrenheit as Bush stepped off Air Force One. The president stopped at a small building where a Marine Cobra pilot briefed him about the positives and negatives of current troop rotations. He told the president that troops were not getting enough time at home and did not have enough time for training.
"Morale?" asked Bush. "How's morale?"
"Very high, sir," the pilot, Capt. Lee Hemming, said.
Bush's six-hour stay was being confined to al-Asad Air Base, an airfield once part of Saddam Hussein's military.
Hadley said the trip was conceived about six weeks ago when top White House advisers began discussing Bush's role as Congress returns to Washington and debate over the war heats up. It was decided that progress in Anbar made it the perfect place to showcase the administration's strategy.
There has been a drop in violence in Anbar, where Sunni tribal leaders and former insurgents have teamed up with U.S. troops to hunt down Al Qaeda and other extremists.
Anticipating criticism that Bush's trip was a media event to buttress support for his war strategy, the White House was ready to push back.
"There are some people who might try to deride this trip as a photo opportunity," White House deputy press secretary Dana Perino said. "We wholeheartedly disagree."
Hadley said Bush wanted to hear personally from commanders and from al-Maliki himself.
"There is no substitute for sitting down, looking him in the eye and having a conversation with him," Hadley said. "The president felt this is something he had to do in order to put himself in a position to make some important decisions."
Next week, Petraeus and Crocker are expected to testify before Congress. Their assessment of the conflict, along with a progress report the White House must give lawmakers by Sept. 15, will determine the next chapter of the war.
Indications are that the president intends to stick with his current approach -- at least into 2008 -- despite pressure from the Democratic-led Congress and some prominent Republicans. Right now, the White House is working to keep Republican members of Congress in the president's fold to prevent Democrats from amassing the strength to slash war funds or mandate immediate troop withdrawals.
The United States cannot sustain the troop buildup indefinitely. And with Democrats calling for withdrawals and a rising U.S. death toll that has topped 3,700, the president is hardpressed to give al-Maliki's government much more time to find a political solution to the fighting.
Bush stopped in Iraq ahead of his visit to Australia for an economic summit with Asia-Pacific leaders. The trip was a closely held secret for obvious security reasons, although there was speculation about such a visit after Laura Bush said late last month that she was staying home to tend to a pinched nerve in her neck.
The president, who also went to Iraq during Thanksgiving in 2003 and in June 2006, was scheduled to leave for Australia on Monday. But he quietly slipped out a side door of the White House on Sunday evening and was driven to Andrews Air Force Base to board Air Force One.
The White House arranged Bush's trip at a pivotal juncture in the Iraq debate. Some prominent Republican lawmakers have broken with Bush on his war strategy, but so far most Republicans have stood with Bush. In exchange for their loyalty, they want to see substantial progress in Iraq soon.
War critics argue that while the troop buildup may have tamped down violence, the Iraqis are making almost no headway toward political reconciliation. They cite a handful of gloomy progress reports trickling out of Washington that show some success in curbing violence but little progress toward political power-sharing agreements.
There are 162,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, including 30,000 that arrived since February as part of Bush's revised strategy to provide security so Iraqi leaders could build a unity government.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.