CAMP ARIFJAN, Kuwait (AP) – Facing another decision about U.S. troop levels in Iraq by spring, President Bush said Saturday it’s “fine with me” if generals recommend no more reductions than those already planned to take the force posture down to about 130,000.
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 here 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 traveling to 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.
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-Qaida 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 lagged in passing legislative reforms seen as key to tamping down the sectarian violence that still plagues the country and hampers other progress.
But 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. He also 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.”
Back in Kuwait City, Bush met at the U.S. Embassy with 10 local women to push his campaign for advancing democracy and the empowerment of women. He found kinship with one woman in the group who had run for parliament and lost.
Bush noted he, too, was defeated when he ran for Congress from Texas in the late 1970s.
The president’s eight-day Mideast trip is aimed primarily at jump-starting Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, working toward the goal of reaching a long-elusive accord by the end of his presidency in a year. But a major subtext to the trip has always been Iran. Kuwait was the first of five Arab states that Bush is visiting on the trip, and talks about the threat Iran poses and the U.S. strategy for confronting it are high on the agenda at each stop. A new U.S. intelligence estimate said Iran had a secret nuclear weapons program but abandoned it in 2003, leading Arab nations to wonder whether the United States remains as committed as ever to dealing with their neighbor.
In his 15-minute statement after the Petraeus-Crocker meeting, Bush mentioned Iran four times. He cited reining in what the U.S. says is Tehran’s deadly role in Iraq as a key goal for future progress there.
“Iran must stop supporting the militia special groups that attack Iraqi and coalition forces, and kidnap and kill Iraqi officials,” the president said.
Last weekend’s clash between Iranian and U.S. Navy ships in the Strait of Hormuz made Bush’s trip to Bahrain, and his planned visit Sunday morning to the 5th Fleet, particularly timely.
In the incident, five Iranian fast boats swarmed a convoy of three U.S. warships. Military officials say the Iranian boats threatened the U.S. vessels, a charge Tehran denies. But though the U.S. ships were preparing to fire, the skirmish ended peacefully.
Still, the confrontation has handed the Bush administration new ammunition in its battle to convince allies that the Tehran government remains a threat.