WASHINGTON — President Bush said on Wednesday he was weighing a short-term increase in U.S. troops in Iraq and believed that the United States should expand its Army and Marine Corps in the long term.
“I’m inclined to believe that we need to increase the permanent size of both the United States Army and the United States Marines,” Bush said at a news conference.
Summing up a year of setbacks, Bush conceded that insurgents in Iraq thwarted U.S. efforts at “establishing security and stability throughout the country.”
Looking to change course, Bush said he has not decided whether to order a short-term surge in U.S. troops in Iraq in hopes of gaining control of the violent and chaotic situation there.
The president spoke a day after he told a newspaper that the United States is not winning the war in Iraq , and as Robert Gates made his first visit to Iraq since being sworn in earlier in the week as defense secretary.
At his traditional year-end news conference, Bush also said the United States will “ask more of our Iraqi partners” in 2007, and he pledged to work with the new Democratic Congress, as well.
‘Grave and deteriorating’ situation
Bush sidestepped one question — whether he would order a so-called surge of troops in Iraq as a first-step toward gaining control of the violent and chaotic situation there.
“Nice try,” he told a reporter who asked about his plans.
In response to the president’s news conference, incoming Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., issued a statement saying, “The president seems lost within his own rhetoric. He is grasping for a victory his current policies have put out of reach and leaving our troops stuck policing a civil war.”
He said Bush must follow the course recommended by the Iraq Study Group. The recommendations, by a commission chaired by James Baker and Lee Hamilton, included a quick buildup of troops as part of an overall plan to halt what it called a “grave and deteriorating” situation in Iraq.
Bush also said the United States supports the creation of a unity government in Iraq.
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Iraq dominated the news conference and the president didn’t wait for the first question before assessing the past 12 months. “2006 was a difficult year for our troops and the Iraqi people.”
He also said he supports a moderate coalition in Iraq, a new effort by the government to “marginalize the radical and extremists” in Iraq.
‘The enemies of liberty’
The president opened the question-and-answer session by conceding the obvious — things haven’t gone well in Iraq, where the United States has lost more than 2,900 troops in almost four years of war, without quelling the insurgency.
“The enemies of liberty ... carried out a deliberate strategy to foment sectarian violence between Sunnis and Shia. And over the course of the year they had success,” he said.
“Their success hurt our efforts to help the Iraqis rebuild their country. They set back reconciliation and kept Iraq’s unity government and our coalition from establishing security and stability throughout the country.”
Bush also explained a striking shift in position in the Washington Post interview.
He said his earlier comments were meant to say that, “I believe that we’re going to win, I believe that ... My comments yesterday reflected the fact that we’re not succeeding nearly as fast as I had wanted.”
‘The calling of our generation’
Bush was asked whether he was like Lyndon Johnson, who had difficulty sleeping during the difficult days of the Vietnam War.
In response, the president said it was difficult knowing that “my decisions have caused young men and women to lose their lives.” And yet, he said, the United States must prevail in the global war on terror—and will.
It “is the calling of our generation,” he said.
On domestic politics, Bush said that he supports a Democratic proposal to increase the U.S. minimum wage but said it should be coupled with tax and regulatory relief for small businesses.
“I believe we should do it in a way that does not punish the millions of small businesses that are creating most of the new jobs in our country,” Bush told a news conference. “So, I support pairing it with targeted tax and regulatory relief to help these small businesses stay competitive and to help keep our economy growing.”
Democrats, who took control of Congress in November elections, have said they will push to raise the minimum wage over two years to $7.25 per hour from $5.15 per hour.
Bush also said he saw an opening for compromise with the Democratic-controlled Congress that convenes on Jan. 4. He cited Social Security and immigration as two major areas in which common ground might be found. He also called for fresh efforts to reduce the United States’ dependence on foreign oil.
Regarding foreign policy, the president repeated his insistence that Iran suspend its nuclear program if it wants to hold talks with the United States and he urged Syria to halt its involvement in Lebanon's affairs.
The Baker Commission had urged the administration to hold talks with the two nations, key neighbors of Iraq, as part of a strategy of improving the situation in the region.
The president also was asked about the pregnancy of Mary Cheney, the openly gay daughter of Vice President Dick Cheney.
“I know Mary and I like her and I know she is going to be a fine, loving mother,” said Bush. Neither he nor his questioner referred to Cheney’s partner.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this story.