SYDNEY, Australia – President Bush on Wednesday defended his buildup of forces in Iraq and pledged to "hang in there" with Iraqis despite calls from Congress to get troops home.
At an Asia-Pacific summit, Bush gave no indication that he planned to reverse the buildup of 30,000 extra U.S. troops anytime soon. That increase is set to end in the spring, and while some troop adjustments could be on the horizon, Bush said nothing to indicate he would end it early.
"There's more work to be done, but reconciliation is taking place," Bush said standing alongside Australian Prime Minister John Howard, a staunch U.S. ally in the war.
"It's important, in my judgment, for the security of America, or for the security of Australia, that we hang in there with the Iraqis and help them," he said.
Howard gave Bush a prominent boost of support. He pledged not to reduce or withdraw the 1,600 Australian forces in Iraq, although he said they might take on more of a training role.
"I made it very clear to the president that our commitment to Iraq remains," Howard said. "Australian forces will remain at their present levels in Iraq not based on any calendar, but based on conditions in the ground."
Howard, however, might not have the final word on Australia's involvement in Iraq. Opposition leader Kevin Rudd, who is ahead of Howard in the polls for the upcoming election, said he wants Australian troops out of Iraq. Bush meets with Rudd later this week, but gave Howard some support in return, saying people shouldn't "count the man out."
Bush arrived at the Asian-Pacific Economic Forum after his surprise visit to Anbar Province in western Iraq, where he was briefed by Iraqi and U.S. officials, including Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, and Ryan Crocker, U.S. ambassador to Baghdad.
Administration officials said Petraeus and Crocker are recommending that Bush stand by his current war strategy. The officials also said the president is unlikely to order more than a symbolic cut in troops before the end of the year.
In testimony next week, Petraeus and Crocker are to give Congress their assessment of the effectiveness of Bush's troop buildup, which was designed to bolster security to allow time for Iraq's Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds to reconcile their differences.
Bush acknowledged that political progress in Iraq is lagging, but said he sees evidence of progress. That is largely at odds with the Government Accountability Office, which was reporting back in Washington that Iraq has failed to meet 11 of its 18 political and security goals.
Sticking to an upbeat assessment of the war, Bush spoke forcefully about the additional American troops he sent to Iraq this year. The U.S. troop presence is about 160,000.
"If I didn't think we could succeed, I wouldn't have our troops there," he said.
Bush's troop increase will end by default in April or May, when one of the added brigades is slated to leave, unless Bush makes other changes to hold the number steady.
Republican support could hinge on Petraeus' testimony. If he can convince lawmakers that the security gains won in recent months are substantial and point toward a bigger trend, GOP members might be more likely to hold out until next spring. They also might be more easily persuaded if Bush promises some small troop drawdowns by the end of the year, as was suggested to the White House by Sen. John Warner of Virginia, an influential Republican on security matters.
Bush would not elaborate on his comments at the start of the trip — in Iraq and then on the flight to Australia — in which he hinted at troop withdrawals if security conditions keep improving.
"Whether or not that's part of the policy I announce to the nation ... why don't we see what they say and then I'll let you know," Bush said, referring to Petraeus and Crocker.
Bush is expected to speak publicly about his decision next week, but the White House has not decided the format, which could include a news conference or an address to the nation.
Later in the day, Bush and Howard took a 20-minute boat ride across the harbor's choppy waters to Garden Island, where they had lunch with Australian troops under a tent.
"Thanks for making the sacrifice necessary for peace," the president told the Australian armed forces. "And we're going to win."
Between lunch and dinner, Bush squeezed in a bike ride at the Honda Motorcycle Training facility, a former police training grounds in St. Ives, about 12 miles north of Sydney. Bush's motorcade went over the picturesque Harbor Bridge and backed up traffic.
Bush's meeting with Howard was focused on Iraq and Afghanistan, but the two also discussed restarting stalled global trade liberalization talks and climate change.
At the 21-nation Asia-Pacific summit, Bush also is meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Japanese Prime Minister Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun and Indonesian President Bambang Yudhoyono.
Bush said that when he talks with Hu on Thursday, he would express his concerns about jailed dissidents, urge the Chinese leader to be more aggressive in fighting Iran's nuclear program, and solicit his thoughts about the humanitarian crisis in Darfur.
"We've got great relations with China from a diplomatic perspective," Bush said. "In other words, we're able to talk with them openly and candidly. Do we agree on every issue? Not at all."