WASHINGTON — President Bush reviewed Iraq strategy on Saturday with top generals for a second day in a row amid increasing election-season pressure to make dramatic changes to address deteriorating conditions.
Meanwhile, three Marines were killed in combat Saturday in Anbar province, the military said, making October the deadliest month for American forces in Iraq this year.
Before a midmorning bike ride, the president consulted for 90 minutes at the White House with his national security team, spokeswoman Nicole Guillemard said.
Gathered around a Roosevelt Room conference table with Bush were Gen. John Abizaid, the top U.S. commander in the Middle East; Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld; Bush’s national security adviser, Stephen Hadley; and other officials. Vice President Dick Cheney and Gen. George Casey, who leads the U.S.-led Multinational Forces in Iraq, joined in by videoconference.
“The participants focused on the nature of the enemy, the challenges in Iraq, how to better pursue our strategy, and the stakes of succeeding for the region and the security of the American people,” Guillemard said.
Bush also met with Abizaid for a half-hour on Friday.
The Marines’ deaths raised the October toll to 78, surpassing the previous high figure of 76 in April. The skyrocketing death figure meant October, with more than a week left, was on course to be the deadliest month for American service members in two years.
Even as it appeared to set the stage for a possible announcement, the White House insisted the meeting was routine and that all that is in question is a change in tactics in the war, not an overhaul of broader strategy or goals. Guillemard said the session was the third in a series of consultations with commanders that would continue in the same forum in the coming weeks.
The discussions Friday and Saturday came at the end of a week in which the U.S. military spokesman in Iraq said a stepped-up operation to secure Baghdad was failing and needed to be refocused; Republicans worried about losing ground in the Nov. 7 elections expressed fresh doubts about the war; and frustration grew with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s lack of progress in reining in militias.
Seeking a way to quell violence
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told reporters traveling with her from Asia to Moscow that Bush meets often with generals overseeing the war effort, including a similar session she attended recently at Camp David.
“I wouldn’t read into this somehow that there is a full-scale push for a major re-evaluation,” Rice said.
“They are always looking at what course we’re on, whether or not it’s working, what’s working and what isn’t working,” Rice said. “I’m quite certain that given the problems of violence in Iraq and the fact that the violence is not coming down to the degree that people would have hoped, that there is going to be a lot of discussion about how we address that.”
On Friday, gunmen loyal to an anti-American Shiite cleric briefly seized a major southern city, an embarrassment for the local Iraqi security forces. For October so far, the U.S. death toll was at least 75 — and likely to be the highest for any month in nearly two years.
“The last few weeks have been rough for our troops in Iraq, and for the Iraqi people,” Bush said Saturday in his weekly radio address. “The fighting is difficult, but our nation has seen difficult fights before. In World War II and the Cold War, earlier generations of Americans sacrificed so that we can live in freedom. This generation will do its duty as well.”
Video: 'Tipping point' Bush said the violence has increased because the Baghdad campaign has put a greater number of American forces in the most violent areas and because terrorists are grasping for propaganda tools. He insisted his goal of victory in Iraq would not change. He also praised Iraq’s leaders for “beginning to take the difficult steps necessary to defeat the terrorists and unite their country.”
“The terrorists are trying to divide America and break our will, and we must not allow them to succeed,” he said. “We will help Iraq become a strong democracy that is a strong ally in the war on terror.”
Texas Republican changes war view
But Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, who holds a seat deemed safe for the GOP, said in a campaign debate Thursday she would have voted against the war had she known Saddam Hussein possessed no weapons of mass destruction, and said earlier in the week that partitioning Iraq into semiautonomous Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish regions should be considered.
Democrats also kept up the pressure. In a letter to the president, a dozen House and Senate Democratic leaders urged him to bring home some U.S. troops and force the Iraqis to take more responsibility for their security. The Democrats said Bush should do more to pressure Iraqi leaders to disarm militias and find a political solution that would curb violence.
Delivering the Democratic radio response, Diane Farrell, who is trying to unseat GOP Rep. Chris Shays in Connecticut, said Bush should fire Rumsfeld and Congress should establish benchmarks for Iraqis that would allow U.S. troops to leave.
“We need a new direction in Iraq. To be blunt, the president and the Republican Congress have been wrong on Iraq and wrong to keep their failed strategy,” Farrell said. “An arbitrary departure date could be dangerous, but real goals for the new Iraqi government and its army are necessary.”
Bush called withdrawal a retreat that “would allow the terrorists to gain a new safe haven from which to launch new attacks on America.”
“We will not pull our troops off the battlefield before the mission is complete,” he said.
An independent commission led by former secretary of State James A. Baker III and former Democratic Rep. Lee Hamilton of Indiana is exploring options for a new strategy. Though Bush is not expected to hear their recommendations for change until December or January, the White House has rejected possible ideas such as partitioning Iraq or a phased withdrawal of troops.
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