WASHINGTON – Moving closer to an overhaul of troubled war strategy, President Bush on Saturday heard firsthand from his new Pentagon chief, just back from a visit to Iraq.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates, finishing up his first week on the job, spent three days in Iraq before heading straight to Camp David in Maryland to report to the president on his conversations with Iraqi leaders and U.S. commanders and soldiers.
Bush, who is spending Christmas at the presidential retreat, was joined by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, national security adviser Stephen Hadley and Hadley's deputy, J.D. Crouch, who is coordinating the administration's Iraq review.
While in Iraq, Gates expressed confidence that Iraqis can take the lead in reducing the violence and warned Iran and Syria not to meddle in their neighbor's affairs.
Bush has said he cannot settle on a revised war plan without input from Gates, who took over from Donald H. Rumsfeld at the Defense Department on Monday. The president is expect to announce a revamped Iraq strategy in a speech to the nation between the New Year's Day and Jan. 23, when he gives his State of the Union address.
The president is considering adding thousands of U.S. troops to the 140,000 already in Iraq as a way to control escalating violence, particularly in Baghdad.
The Los Angeles Times reported Saturday that Gen. George Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, and other military leaders in Iraq once skeptical of a "surge" in troops have decided to endorse the idea.
Some important voices at the Pentagon, however, are not convinced that a significant troop increase would help and, in fact, worry it could do more harm than good.
Democrats about to take control of Congress and other war critics fear that American troops will remain mired unless the Iraqis are threatened with an imminent withdrawal of U.S. soldiers and forced to meet specific benchmarks.
Bush has changed his mind and now believes the Army and Marine Corps should be increased in overall size. This process would take years but still could address some doubts in the military about a short-term boost in Iraq.
While saying he has not decided whether to deploy more U.S. soldiers, the president has given another nod to military leaders by making clear he agrees that any such mission is only feasible if there is a defined mission that is clear and achievable.
Before leaving Baghdad, Gates would not say whether he supports a short-term troop increase. He did speak optimistically about Iraq's political leaders' commitment to taking over their own security and ability to deal with the militias that have brought the country to the brink of civil war.
The military component of Bush's upcoming plan has drawn the most attention. But it is only one part of what is expected to be a multi-pronged strategy.
It also will include a way to improve the economic picture in Iraq and a new approach to both diplomacy in the region and to the delicate — and deadly — political situation inside Iraq.
An anti-American, most Sunni insurgency has been replaced this year as the chief source of violence by bloodshed between Sunni and Shiite factions.
With public support for the war falling as violence and U.S. deaths rise, Bush has been eager to show he is ready to make changes, even while he rejects calls from many Democrats for significant troop withdrawals to begin soon. The president has talked often in recent weeks about the long commitment America must make to Iraq.
"Things are moving in a positive direction. But it's going to be a long haul," Gates said during his visit.
Looking ahead, the president has called a meeting of his National Security Council on Thursday at his Crawford, Texas, ranch.
"If you're serving on the front lines halfway across the world, it is natural to wonder what all this means for you," the president said Saturday in his weekly radio address, taped before he left Washington on Friday for the holiday.
"I want our troops to know that while the coming year will bring change, one thing will not change, and that is our nation's support for you and the vital work you do to achieve a victory in Iraq."
Also Saturday, Bush called El Salvador's president, Tony Saca, to thank the country for extending its troop presence in Iraq.
Despite public sentiment against it, El Salvador's legislature this month approved Saca's request. The contingent scheduled to remain another year could be smaller than the 380 soldiers that have been in Iraq, mainly for humanitarian and rebuilding work.