CAMP ARIFJAN, Kuwait – Facing another decision about U.S. troop numbers in Iraq by spring, President George W. Bush said Saturday it is "fine with me" if generals recommend no more cuts than those planned to drop the force level to about 130,000.
Bush said the addition of troops to Iraq over the past year has produced results, saying it has helped turn the country into a place where "hope is returning." He cited citizen cooperation against extremists, grass-roots political changes and lower violence levels.
Bush also commended Iraq's parliament for passing legislation reinstating thousands of former supporters of Saddam Hussein's Baath party to government jobs.
"It's an important step toward reconciliation," Bush said. "It's an important sign that the leaders of that country understand that they must work together to meet the aspirations of the Iraqi people."
"I know you've been concerned about Iraq and the politics of Iraq," Bush told Bahrain's King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa. The president said he was pleased to inform the monarch about the passage of the law.
"I come with an upbeat message, a hopeful message — a message that will prevail here in the Middle East," said Bush, the first sitting U.S. president to visit Bahrain, an oil-rich nation in the Persian Gulf. Bush invited the king to visit him in Washington.
Traveling for the next few days among Sunni Arab-ruled states jittery about the rising influence and ambitions of Shiite-majority Iran, Bush used part of remarks that were focused on Iraq to put Tehran on notice — again.
"Iran's role in fomenting violence has been exposed," he said as he listed successes the U.S. is helping to bring about in Iraq. "Iranian agents are in our custody, and we are learning more about how Iran has supported extremist groups with training and lethal aid."
After spending a day in Kuwait meeting with its leaders and addressing U.S. troops based here, Bush was welcomed as the first sitting U.S. president to visit Bahrain, an oil-refining and banking island in the Persian Gulf that is host to the headquarters of the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet.
Bush was treated to trumpet and cannon salutes as he walked down a long, red carpet at a palace in the capital city Manama. Bahrain's king, Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa, presented Bush with a medal described as Bahrain's highest award, given only to heads of state.
Bush congratulated Bahrain for holding free elections and noted the election two years ago of a woman member of parliament.
"Our two nations share a common vision for the future of the Middle East," Bush said in brief remarks at the welcome ceremony in his honor.
Bush then watched dancers in flowing robes and headdress perform to rhythmic music as they held swords and rifles. The president and King Hamad were presented with swords, too, which they raised over their heads, just as the dancers had done.
Bush's comments in Bahrain echoed his praise for similar democratic gains in Kuwait, where women were given the vote in 2005. Although he talked democracy and development with a group of Kuwaiti women, most of his public business in the emirate concerned the military challenge next door in Iraq.
The top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, told reporters after Bush spoke that the overall flow of weaponry from Iran into Iraq appears to be down, but attacks with "explosively formed projectiles" tied to Tehran are up by a factor of two or three in recent days. "Frankly, we are trying to determine why that might be," he said.
The roadside bombs, known as EFPs, are armor-piercing explosives that have killed hundreds of U.S. soldiers in Iraq. U.S. military officials have been saying for months that mainly Shiite Iran has been supplying EFPs to Shiite militias in Iraq, despite strong denials by Tehran.
Camp Arifjan is the largest U.S. base in Kuwait, home to about 9,000 American troops. Bush met there with Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker to get a firsthand report on the war in Iraq. The two are scheduled to give Congress another update on Iraq in March and make a recommendation about troop levels that Bush said must be made "based upon success."
"My attitude is, if he didn't want to continue the drawdown, that's fine with me, in order to make sure we succeed, see," the president told reporters after the hourlong briefing. "I said to the general, `If you want to slow her down, fine. It's up to you."'
After a similar report from Petraeus and Crocker in September, Bush announced he would withdraw some troops from Iraq by July — essentially the 30,000 sent as part of a buildup ordered a year ago — but still keep the U.S. level there at about 130,000.
"The only thing I can tell you we're on track for is, we're doing what we said was going to happen," the president said.
The war remains deeply unpopular to the U.S. public and to Democratic leaders in Congress, who have been unable to force Bush's hand on deeper, faster troop withdrawals.
U.S. commanders credit a Sunni backlash against Al Qaeda in Iraq with helping reduce violence over the past six months. But devastating attacks persist even as Iraqi casualties are down by 55 percent nationwide since June 2007, according to an Associated Press count.
So far, nine of 18 Iraqi provinces have reverted from U.S. military to Iraqi security control, although the handover has gone slower than the Bush administration once hoped, mainly because of obstacles to developing sufficient Iraqi police and army forces.
The central government in Baghdad also has disappointed its U.S. backers. It has lagged in passing legislative reforms seen as key to countering sectarian violence, promoting political cohesion and economic development.
Not long after Bush spoke, however, Iraq's parliament adopted a law sought by the United States on the reinstatement of former Baath party supporters to government jobs. The measure relaxes restrictions on the right of members of Saddam Hussein's now-dissolved Baath party to fill government posts. It is also designed to reinstate thousands of Baathists expelled from government jobs. The dismissals had deepened sectarian tensions between Iraq's majority Shiites and the once-dominant Sunni Arabs.
U.S. officials traveling with Bush said they had seen press reports about the parliament's approval but had not confirmed it with the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.
"Obviously it would be a very welcome development," White House press secretary Dana Perino said in Manama. "This is something that shows the Iraqis are committed to working on the difficult issues of reconciliation."
Bush defended the performance of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and other leaders.
"I'm not making excuses for a government, but to go from a tyranny to a democracy overnight is virtually impossible. And so when you say, am I pleased with the progress — what they have gone through and where they are today I think is good progress," Bush said. "Have they done enough? No."
In language that seemed to presage maintaining U.S. troop levels, Bush said: "We cannot take the achievements of 2007 for granted. We must do all we can to ensure that 2008 brings even greater progress for Iraq's young democracy."
Also while on the sprawling, dusty brown base, Bush gave brief thank-you remarks to cheering troops. "It's hard work that you're doing. But it's necessary work," the president told them. "There is no doubt in my mind that we will succeed."