WASHINGTON (AFP) – President George W. Bush offered the tantalizing prospect of US force cuts during a dramatic one-day visit to Iraq but he is not saying when or how many troops might come home.
Bush left those highly charged questions for General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker who report to Congress next week on the results of a surge that has pushed US force levels to an all-time high of 162,000 troops.
Instead Bush highlighted progress in al-Anbar province, where onetime Sunni insurgents have turned against al-Qaeda, as the basis for a strikingly optimistic view of security conditions in Iraq as a whole despite persistent high levels of violence.
The president’s top advisers, who traveled en masse and in secrecy to Iraq for a “war council” with Iraqi leaders on Monday, reinforced the view that gains in security could lead to a drawdown in US forces.
The normally cautious US Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he is more optimistic about Iraq than at any time since he took office in December, telling reporters that the improvements are visible not just in al-Anbar but in Iraq as a whole.
“Clearly that is one of the central issues that everybody has been examining,” he said.
“What is the security situation, what do we expect the security situation to be in the months ahead — I would say in the next several months — and what opportunities does that provide in terms of maintaining the security situation while perhaps beginning to bring the troop levels down,” he said.
Whether they can come down soon enough, fast enough to defuse congressional demands for a withdrawal timetable remains to be seen.
US commanders in Iraq have argued in favor of keeping US troops at current levels through at least the spring or summer of 2008, warning that Iraqi security forces are unready to take over from them.
On the other hand, US service chiefs, who briefed Bush at the Pentagon on Friday, are said to be worried about the strains of prolonged deployments and the residual capacity of US ground forces to respond to other contingencies.
Separate assessments on the strategy are being developed not only by Petraeus and Crocker, but also by Admiral William Fallon, the commander of US forces in the Middle East; General Peter Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and Gates himself.
“Just because I wanted the commanders to present their views independently and directly to the president does not necessarily mean that they are not in agreement,” Gates said.
But even on Al-Anbar, where few dispute that there has been significant shift in Sunni sentiment against Al-Qaeda, there is disagreement on the motives of former insurgents in seeking alliances with US forces.
The Shiite led central government has reacted with suspicion to the Sunni “awakening” and moved slowly to channel funds and other support the provincial and local governments.
A US intelligence estimate last month warned that without the support of the central government the new alliances with the Sunnis would not translate into a political accommodation, and could pose a risk to the government.
Acknowledging frustrations over the lack of support, Bush had Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki and senior members of the government sit down with tribal leaders during his visit to Al Asad Air Base.
Gates said he sensed “shared purpose among them, that they were all in this together, and then there was what I would say was some good-natured jousting about resources, and who’s going to get what reconstruction funds.”