WASHINGTON – President Bush pledged Monday to ensure "an outcome that will merit the sacrifice" of those who have died in Iraq, offering both sympathy and resolve as the U.S. death toll in the five-year war hit 4,000.
"One day, people will look back at this moment in history and say, `Thank God there were courageous people willing to serve because they laid the foundation for peace for generations to come,' " Bush said at the State Department after a two-hour briefing on U.S. diplomatic strategy around the world. "I vow so long as I am president to make sure that those lives were not lost in vain."
The president received another two-hour briefing earlier Monday at the White House on Iraq, this one from Gen. David Petraeus, the top commander in Iraq, and Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, via secure video hookup from Baghdad. Petraeus and Crocker are due to testify on Capitol Hill on April 8-9.
Grim milestones such as the 4,000-mark in the war's death toll or even large clusters of casualties usually go unremarked upon by Bush. But he chose on this occasion to note the losses, albeit briefly and without taking questions from reporters.
"On this day of reflection, I offer our deepest sympathies to their families," the president said. "I hope their families know that citizens pray for their comfort and their strength, whether they were the first one who lost their life in Iraq or recently lost their life in Iraq."
The White House said Bush is likely to embrace an expected recommendation from Petraeus for a halt in troop withdrawals beyond those already scheduled to be completed by July, with the expectation that reductions would resume before the president leaves office in January. Bush also is to receive a briefing on Wednesday at the Pentagon "on what actions his advisers recommend for cementing those gains and taking action that will lay the foundation for further additional troop drawdowns," White House press secretary Dana Perino said.
Petreaus believes a so-called pause in drawdowns, lasting a month or two, is needed to assess the impact of the current round.
Perino said that Bush sees "some merit" in that idea. "I think that's not unlikely," she said. She said Bush is under "no deadline" to make a decision about troop levels before leaving next week for a NATO summit in Romania.
Bush himself has hinted in recent speeches that he supports Petraeus' position. But he did not tip his hand at all during his remarks Monday.
"Our strategy going forward will be aimed at making sure that we achieve victory and therefore America becomes more secure," he said, adding that it is important that these "young democracies survive" as the 21st century progresses.
With the war entering its sixth year, Bush has been making the argument that defeating extremists in Iraq makes it less likely that Americans will encounter enemies at home. Iraq has taken a heavy toll on his presidency, contributing to Bush's low poll ratings.
The U.S. has about 158,000 troops in Iraq. That number is expected to drop to 140,000 by summer in drawdowns meant to erase all but about 8,000 troops from last year's increase, widely referred to in official Washington circles as a "surge."
Perino had said earlier Monday that Bush spends time every day thinking about those who have lost their lives in battle and has "grieved for every lost American life." Families of the fallen soldiers often tell the president that they want him to complete the mission in Iraq, she said.
"He bears the responsibility for the decisions that he made," Perino said. "He also bears the responsibility to continue to focus on succeeding."
Vice President Dick Cheney, in Jerusalem to push the Mideast peace process, said the 4,000th American death in Iraq may have a psychological impact on the American public.
"You regret every casualty, every loss," he said. "The president is the one that has to make that decision to send young men and women into harm's way. It never gets any easier."
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Americans are asking how much longer their troops must sacrifice for an Iraqi government "that is unwilling or unable to secure its own future."
"Americans also understand that the cost of the war to our national security, military readiness and our reputation around the world is immense and that the threat to our economy — as the war in Iraq continues to take us deeper into debt — is unacceptable," Pelosi said.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, vying for the Democratic presidential nomination, told a campaign audience in Pennsylvania that she would honor the fallen by ending the war and bringing home U.S. troops "as quickly and responsibly as possible." Her rival for the nomination, Sen. Barack Obama, said "It is past time to end this war that should never have been waged by bringing our troops home, and finally pushing Iraq's leaders to take responsibility for their future."