WASHINGTON — President Bush said Tuesday a new plan to increase U.S. and Iraqi forces in the besieged capital of Baghdad will help quell rising violence that is threatening Iraq’s transformation to a self-sustaining democracy.
A senior Pentagon official told NBC News that tens of thousands of U.S. and Iraqi military and security forces will be sent into Baghdad to attempt to stem the recent rise in sectarian killings.
The official said the number would be in the "low thousands" and that Iraqis would make up the bulk of the forces being redeployed from other parts of Iraq into Baghdad.
Military officials tell NBC News that at least four companies, about 400 U.S. Army military police, will be sent into Baghdad to embed with Iraqi security forces.
The official stressed that the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. George Casey, has made no final decision on the ultimate number of additional U.S. and Iraqi forces to be redeployed, and that number would be "conditional" depending entirely on the changing threat on the ground in Baghdad.
Bush implicitly addressed the issue at the White House. “Obviously the violence in Baghdad is still terrible, and therefore there needs to be more troops,” he said in a White House news conference with visiting Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
Al-Maliki, on his first trip to the United States since becoming prime minister two months ago, said he and Bush agreed that training and better arming Iraqi forces as quickly as possible, particularly in the capital city, was central to efforts to stabilize the country.
“And, God willing, there will be no civil war in Iraq,” al-Maliki said, speaking through a translator.
The two leaders disagreed openly on how to end hostilities between the Hezbollah militia in southern Lebanon and Israel, with al-Maliki, a Shiite Muslim leader, reiterating his support for an immediate cease-fire and Bush sticking by the administration opposition to one.
A group of House Democrats called on GOP leaders to cancel al-Maliki’s address to Congress on Thursday. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said he doubted he would attend and that there were a “large number of people (in Congress) who were uncomfortable” with al-Maliki’s condemnation of Israel’s attacks in Lebanon and apparent support for Hezbollah
Bush said that al-Maliki had asked for more military equipment from the United States and had recommended increasing U.S. and Iraqi forces patrolling Baghdad neighborhoods. “And we’re going to do that,” Bush said.
The president said U.S. forces would be moved in from other parts of Iraq. He did not say how many, but Pentagon officials have suggested several thousands troops would be moved to Baghdad, including some now based in Kuwait.
There are roughly 127,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. The administration is under increasing pressure from Democrats and some Republicans to bring a substantial number home by the end of this year.
Asked if the tense situation in Baghdad would alter the equation for an eventual withdrawal of U.S. forces, Bush said troop level decisions will still be based on recommendations from military commanders in the field.
“Conditions change inside a country,” Bush said. “Will we be able to deal with the circumstances on the ground? And the answer is, yes, we will.”
The president and the prime minister met privately before the news conference to discuss strategy, then continued talks over lunch with a larger group that included Cabinet members and aides.
At the East Room news conference, Bush said al-Maliki was very clear in stating that “he does not want American troops to leave his country until his government can protect the Iraqi people. And I assured him that America will not abandon the Iraqi people.”
It was not clear how many U.S. troops will be in Baghdad as a result of the new plan. About two weeks ago, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said that the number of Iraqi and U.S. troops in Baghdad had recently grown from 40,000 to 55,000.
Bush has praise for counterpart
Bush complimented the beleaguered leader for his courage and perseverance in the face of sectarian violence. Recent attacks have sapped political support for the more than 3-year-old war in Iraq, in both the United States and Iraq.
The administration insists that Hezbollah must first return two captured Israeli soldiers and stop firing missiles into Israel before any cease-fire. “I told him (al-Maliki) I support a sustainable cease-fire that will bring about an end to violence,” Bush said.
Al-Maliki is to address Congress on Wednesday. Some Democrats said they might shun the Iraqi leader’s speech unless he condemns Hezbollah as a terrorist organization and promises not to extend amnesty to Iraqis who killed U.S. troops.
Democrats criticize al-Maliki
A group of House Democrats called on GOP leaders to cancel al-Maliki’s address. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said he doubted he would attend and that there were a “large number of people (in Congress) who were uncomfortable” with al-Maliki’s condemnation of Israel’s attacks in Lebanon and apparent support for Hezbollah.
Al-Maliki sidestepped a question at the White House news conference about his position on Hezbollah.
“Here, actually, we’re talking about the suffering of a people in a country. And we are not in the process of reviewing one issue or another, or any government position,” al-Maliki said.
Ahead of al-Maliki’s speech to Congress on Wednesday, Bush was taking him to nearby Fort Belvoir, Va., for a meeting with U.S. troops and their families. Both leaders will “thank them for their courage and their sacrifice,” Bush said.
No killing, discrimination policy?
The president said improved military conditions outside Baghdad will make it possible to move U.S. military police and other forces to the capital, where an estimated 100 people a day are being killed. The crimes, blamed largely on sectarian death squads, usually go unsolved.
Al-Maliki said the most important element of a new security program “is to curb the religious violence.”
Iraq’s government must have a policy that “there is no killing and discrimination against anyone,” al-Maliki said.
U.S. officials believe control of Baghdad — the political, cultural and economic hub of the country — will determine the future of Iraq.
U.S. and Iraqi soldiers captured six members of an alleged death squad in Baghdad on Tuesday, while attacks elsewhere in Iraq left more than two-dozen dead.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.