WASHINGTON — Defying public opinion polls and newly empowered Democratic lawmakers, President Bush told Americans Wednesday that he is dispatching 21,500 additional U.S. troops to Iraq. And in a rare admission, he said he made a mistake by not deploying more forces sooner.
“The situation in Iraq is unacceptable to the American people, and it is unacceptable to me,” Bush said in a televised address from the White House. “Where mistakes have been made, the responsibility rests with me.”
With American patience running thin over his handling of the war, Bush said he would put greater pressure on Iraqis to restore order in Baghdad and used blunt language to warn Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki that “America’s commitment is not open-ended.”
“If the Iraqi government does not follow through on its promises, it will lose the support of the American people, and it will lose the support of the Iraqi people,” Bush said.
Bush said his new strategy, in which Iraqis will try to take responsibility for security in all 18 provinces by November rather than just three now, “will not yield an immediate end to suicide bombings” and other violence.
But he said the increased military presence would help break the cycle of violence gripping Iraq and “hasten the day our troops begin coming home.”
Bush said that 17,500 troops would go to Baghdad and 4,000 to the volatile Anbar province, Senior administration officials said before the president spoke that the first wave of troops is expected to arrive in five days, with others joining about 130,000 U.S. troops already in Iraq in the coming weeks.
Bush’s decision will push the American presence in Iraq toward its highest level and puts him on a collision course with the new Democratic Congress.
Democrats: Strategy bound to fail
Democratic congressional leaders said shortly after Bush spoke that Bush's failure to impose a deadline on the Iraqis to assume responsibility for their own security doomed the initiative to failure.
“Iraqi political leaders will not take the necessary steps to achieve a political resolution to the sectarian problems in their country until they understand that the U.S. commitment is not open-ended," said the statement by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Democratic Whip Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md. "Escalating our military involvement in Iraq sends precisely the wrong message and we oppose it.”
Anticipating such reaction, Bush warned in his speech that “to step back now would force a collapse of the Iraqi government, tear that country apart and result in mass killings on an unimaginable scale.”
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Senate and House Democrats are arranging votes urging the president not to send more troops. While lacking the force of law, the measures would compel Republicans to go on record as either bucking the president or supporting an escalation.
Usually loath to admit error, Bush acknowledged in his speech that it was a mistake to have allowed American forces to be restricted by the Iraqi government, which tried to prevent U.S. military operations against fighters controlled by the radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, a powerful political ally of al-Maliki. This time, the president said, al-Maliki had assured him there will be no such interference and that “political or sectarian interference will not be tolerated.”
The president also accused Iran and Syria of allowing use of their territory for terrorists and insurgents to move in and out of Iraq and vowed, “We will interrupt the flow of support from Syria and Iran. And we will seek out and destroy the networks providing advanced weaponry and training to our enemies in Iraq.”
Ahead of a visit to the Middle East by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Bush said Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and Persian Gulf states needed to understand that a U.S. defeat in Iraq ”would create a new sanctuary for extremists — and a strategic threat to their survival.”
Last chance to sway public opinion?
After nearly four years of bloody combat, the speech was perhaps Bush’s last credible chance to try to present a winning strategy in Iraq and persuade Americans to change their minds about the unpopular war, which has cost the lives of more than 3,000 members of the U.S. military as well as more than $400 billion.
Bush’s approach amounts to a huge gamble on al-Maliki’s willingness — and ability — to deliver on promises he has consistently failed to keep: to disband Shiite militias, pursue national reconciliation and make good on commitments for Iraqi forces to handle security operations in Baghdad.
“Our past efforts to secure Baghdad failed for two principal reasons: There were not enough Iraqi and American troops to secure neighborhoods that had been cleared of terrorists and insurgents,” the president said. “And there were too many restrictions on the troops we did have.”
He said American commanders have reviewed the Iraqi plan “to ensure that it addressed these mistakes.”
Bush said that under his plan, U.S. forces will work alongside Iraqi units and be embedded in their formations.
‘Clearly defined mission’
Responding to concerns from U.S. commanders, Bush said American troops will have a "clearly defined mission" to help Iraqis clear and secure neighborhoods, assist in the protection of the local population and “to help ensure that the Iraqi forces left behind are capable of providing the security that Baghdad needs.”
While Bush is putting the onus on the Iraqis to meet their responsibilities and commit more troops, he did not threaten specific consequences if they do not. Iraq has missed previous self-imposed timetables for taking over security responsibilities.
But the president said that the risk of troop reductions at this stage of the conflict would be grave. “Failure in Iraq would be a disaster for the United States," he said. "A democratic Iraq will not be perfect. But it will be a country that fights terrorists instead of harboring them.”
But Bush warned that his strategy would, in a short term he did not define, bring more violence rather than less.
“Even if our new strategy works exactly as planned, deadly acts of violence will continue, and we must expect more Iraqi and American casualties,” he said. “The question is whether our new strategy will bring us closer to success. I believe that it will.”
‘Casualties are going to go up’
Bush’s warning was echoed by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a leading proponent of a troop increase. “Is it going to be a strain on the military? Absolutely. Casualties are going to go up,” the senator said.
Bush said he considered calls from Democrats and some Republicans to pull back American forces. He concluded it would rip Iraq apart.
“Such a scenario would result in our troops being forced to stay even longer and confront an enemy that is even more lethal,” the president said. “If we increase our support at this crucial moment and help the Iraqis break the current cycle of violence, we can hasten the day our troops begin coming home.”
Still, Bush said that “America’s commitment is not open-ended. If the Iraqi government does not follow through on its promises, it will lose the support of the American people and it will lose the support of the Iraqi people. Now is the time to act.”
In a signal that al-Maliki intends to make good on his vow to clamp down on Shiite militias, senior Iraqi officials told the Associated Press shortly before Bush spoke that al-Maliki had warned militiamen loyal to al-Sadr to surrende r their arms or face an all-out assault by U.S.-backed Iraqi forces.
“Prime Minister al-Maliki has told everyone that there will be no escape from attack,” said a senior Shiite legislator and close al-Maliki adviser. “The government has told the Sadrists: ‘If we want to build a state we have no other choice but to attack armed groups.”’
Al-Maliki had previously resisted issuing an ultimatum to al-Sadr, a close political ally.
The U.S. move to ramp up its presence in Iraq came as there were indications that a key ally in the war was scaling back.
British reportedly to scale back presence
London's Daily Telegraph newspaper reported that Prime Minister Tony Blair is preparing to announce that Britain will cut troop levels in Iraq by almost 3,000 at the end of May. The newspaper, citing a timetable for withdrawal that it said it had seen, said Blair would make the announcement within two weeks.
The withdrawal would reduce the 7,200-strong British force based in southern Iraq by about 40 percent.
The cost of the troop increase would be around $5.6 billion, administration sources said before Bush spoke. An additional $1.2 billion would finance rebuilding and jobs programs with the aim of cutting down on the supply of new recruits for anti-government militias.
The $6.8 billion will be added to a broader war-spending package for fiscal year 2007 that was already expected to hit $100 billion. The current fiscal year is on track to become the costliest yet for the Iraq war.
Many of Bush’s own Republicans expressed unease with the idea of a troop increase, noting that an effort last year to try to stabilize Baghdad by adding troops was followed by more violence.
“I don’t know the numbers, but we’ve done 20,000 before,” Sen. Gordon Smith, an Oregon Republican, told CNN. “It has made no difference because the Iraqis whom we have trained have simply not shown up to the fight. This is their fight, it’s not our fight.”
It will be different this time, White House counselor Dan Bartlett responded.
“I think the concerns they’re raising is because in the previous attempts the Iraqis hadn’t stepped up with the number of troops that they said they would commit,” he said. “That is going to be a difference this time.”
One official said Bush believes there is a need to “muscle up to step back.” They expect that by summer, perhaps August, they can gauge whether the strategy is working.
GOP leaders vow support
Republican leaders emerged from the meeting promising to back Bush. “The fundamental decision to stay on offense and to finish the job, I think is correct,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
But many of their own were growing restless. “I do not want to embarrass the president, but I do not support a surge” in troops, said Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., who said he told Bush as much last week.
But Sen. Sam Brownback, a Kansas Republican who is eyeing a presidential bid, on Wednesday released a statement opposing a troop increase. That puts him at odds with two other prominent Republicans gunning for the White House: Sen. John McCain and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
After nearly four years of fighting, $400 billion and thousands of American and Iraqi lives lost, approval of Bush’s handling of the war hit a record low of 27 percent in December, according to an AP-Ipsos poll.
Among other steps by the United States is expansion of an existing program to decentralize reconstruction efforts. Ten units known as Provincial Reconstruction Teams will be expanded to 19, with the additional units based in Baghdad and in Anbar province, seats of most of the worst violence. The teams, under State Department control, will administer some of the economic aid, including an effort to provide small loans to start or expand businesses.
The president ignored key recommendations of the bipartisan, independent Iraq Study Group, including that he include Syria and Iran in discussions about efforts to staunch Iraqi bloodshed, the official said. Instead, he will call for increased operations against nations meddling in Iraq, aimed at Iran and, to a lesser degree, Syria.
The president’s address is the centerpiece of an aggressive public relations campaign that also includes detailed briefings for lawmakers and reporters and a series of appearances by Bush starting with a trip Thursday to Fort Benning, Ga.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.