Bush opens the door to a troop withdrawal
Speaking at a White House news conference, Bush for the first time adopted the blueprint outlined in December by the Iraq Study Group, saying he envisioned U.S. troops gradually moving out of their combat role and into support and training functions.
Bush's remarks were the clearest yet on his vision for the long-term U.S. role in Iraq.
It also represented a significant shift in his public position on the study group's recommendations, which when they were unveiled were embraced by war critics but largely ignored by the White House.
According to people familiar with internal administration discussions, senior officials were even more dismissive in private, suggesting the group's report was a recipe for defeat.
Despite the public shift, Bush made clear that he did not necessarily see a more limited role for troops coming soon, emphasizing that curtailing the violence through his "surge" strategy would take precedence.
"I didn't think we could get there unless we increased the troop levels to secure the capital," he said.
Still, he said, the next phase of the war would have U.S. troops train Iraqis, guard the country's borders and pursue Al Qaeda. The study group recommended reducing the size of the force to 20,000, enough to train Iraqi troops. Bush did not endorse those targets. There are an estimated 146,000 U.S. troops in Iraq.
Some congressional Republicans welcomed Bush's stance.
Sen. John W. Warner of Virginia, a bellwether of the party's position on the war, said he wanted Bush to move more quickly in carrying out the study group's recommendations, suggesting the White House shift its strategy as soon as July.
"The facts on the ground, if they continue to worsen as they have been here in the past months," would seem to make July an "opportune time," Warner said.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has suggested that a reduction in troops could begin as soon as September, when the Pentagon has promised a formal evaluation of the effectiveness of the buildup, particularly if significant progress has been made.
On Thursday, Gates declined to say when a shift would occur.
"It remains to be seen," he said at a news briefing. He said plans for a reduction are underway as part of a contingency effort he ordered several months ago.
When Bush unveiled his troop buildup in January, it was seen as a repudiation of the Iraq Study Group.
Since then, several key Republicans have questioned the administration's strategy as public support for the war continues to fall.
A New York Times/CBS News poll issued Thursday showed that 61% of Americans think the U.S. never should have invaded Iraq, the highest level of disapproval since the question has been asked.
Bush's sudden embrace of the study group's blueprint is a measure of how far support for the war has eroded, particularly in the Republican Party.
It also is a sign that administration supporters of the Iraq Study Group's recommendations — thought to include Gates, a former member of the commission — are gaining ground in the internal debate over the way forward, potentially at the expense of those who enthusiastically back the buildup.
The recently named White House "war czar," Army Lt. Gen. Douglas E. Lute, is known to be a supporter of a more limited role for U.S. troops, and he opposed the buildup when it was debated in the Pentagon.
When the Iraq Study Group gave its report to the White House, Bush said he agreed with its assessment of the dire situation in Iraq but made clear that he did not share its conclusions, particularly those on troop withdrawals.
"Not all of us around the table agree with every idea," Bush said at the time.
But the administration has gradually moved closer to the study group's recommendations.
The White House initially rejected suggestions that it open talks with Syria and Iran to help improve security in Iraq.
But in late February, the administration said it would take part in high-level discussions with both countries over Iraqi security issues. U.S. and Iranian ambassadors to Iraq plan to meet in Baghdad on Monday.
By agreeing to move toward a plan with more bipartisan support, Bush is putting greater pressure on the planned September evaluation, which will be delivered by the top commander in Iraq, Army Gen. David H. Petraeus.
Senior officers working for Petraeus have suggested that they would like the buildup to continue through next spring. But it remains unclear how the administration will react in September to signs of progress. Bush could cite security advances in choosing to withdraw troops or to maintain their presence as a way of building on successes.
Bush acknowledged in his Rose Garden news conference that by ordering the September review, he might be inviting insurgents to step up their attacks to influence U.S. decision-making.
"It could make August a tough month, because, you see, what they're going to try to do is kill as many innocent people as they can to try to influence the debate here at home," Bush said. "It could be a bloody, it could be a very difficult August, and I fully understand that."
The number of U.S. troops killed in Iraq has already started to increase as forces move more aggressively into Baghdad neighborhoods.
Last month, 104 soldiers were killed in Iraq, only the sixth time that more than 100 troops were killed in a single month since the war began. So far in May, 83 troops have been killed, a pace that would put U.S. casualties near last month's levels, according to icasualties.org, an independent group that tracks military deaths.
Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, acknowledged that the number of civilian deaths had begun to rise again, an increase that Iraqi officials have credited to new violence in Baghdad.
Pace said he could not say whether the recent increase was because of renewed sectarian violence, but insisted that overall civilian deaths were much lower than in January, when they were at about 1,400. He said May was likely to see about 550 civilian deaths.
Times staff writer Julian E. Barnes contributed to this report.