Bush Says US Could Start Pulling Troops Out of Iraq

During a surprise visit to Iraq Monday, President Bush said if current trends continue it will be possible to begin withdrawing U.S. troops. The president made the comment during an unprecedented visit to Iraq with his secretaries of State and Defense, and his top military commanders. VOA's Al Pessin reports from the meeting site at al-Asad Air Base in western al-Anbar Province.

President Bush said he was pleased with what he heard from Ambassador Ryan Crocker and General David Petraeus during his five-hour visit to this province, which has gone from being the most violent and anti-government part of Iraq to one of the country's main security success stories. "General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker tell me if the kind of success we are seeing continues it will be possible to maintain the same level of security with fewer American forces," he said.

President Bush also met with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, President Jalal Talibani and other top leaders, as well as provincial officials and local sheikhs. Earlier this year, the Sunni sheikhs switched their allegiance from al-Qaida to the Shiite-led Iraqi government. The president brought the two groups together around a conference table and he says he gave them a message. "Secretary Gates, Secretary Rice, and I discussed with the Iraqi leaders that there has been security success. Now it is important for government to follow up," he said.

The president said the Iraqi leaders at all levels have to use the improved security situation to deliver better lives to the Iraqi people. He also pledged not to abandon Iraq, despite calls from some members of congress for a U.S. troop withdrawal to begin this year.

The president urged the congress to hold its debate until it hears directly from General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker next week. And he said policy decisions will be based on the recommendations of his field commanders, not on what he called nervous reactions from politicians or public opinion polls.

Officials say the president will make key decisions about his Iraq policy after the Petraeus/Crocker testimony.

The president made the unannounced detour to Iraq while on his way to Australia for regional meetings, bringing Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice with him. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and senior military officers had arrived about 90 minutes earlier, creating an exceptional gathering of top U.S. national security officials in a foreign country. All the travel was shrouded in unusual levels of secrecy and security.

Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell says the meetings here bring together the president's war council with top Iraqi leaders for meetings that will play a key role in decisions the president will make soon about the future of U.S. policy toward Iraq, including troop levels. Many members of congress are calling for the start of a U.S. troop withdrawal this year, but combat commanders have said that would be too soon.

But the commanders acknowledge that the surge forces will begin to return home next April, at the latest, and it would be difficult for the U.S. military to replace them.

U.S. officials say that gives Iraqi politicians just a few months to forge some sort of national reconciliation in the environment of enhanced security the surge has provided, and the Iraqis have been unable to move very quickly on that so far.

It is unusual for so many senior U.S. civilian and military officials converge anywhere in the world for meetings with foreign leaders. But with so much attention focused on next week's progress reports, the senior official says there was no better way to assess the situation than to meet in person with the Iraqi officials and look the U.S. commanders in the eye.