President Bush on Wednesday said the enemy in Iraq is “far from being defeated,” and vowed to be patient in adjusting his strategy, giving little indication that he intends to veer sharply from the direction his war policies have taken. "I’m not going to be rushed into making a difficult decision ... a necessary decision," he said.
The U.S. Army, meanwhile, has drawn up orders to send an additional 7,000 combat troops from the 1st Infantry Division to Iraq by early next year, NBC News has learned.
The new troops would be part of a short-term surge of up to 35,000 new U.S. forces. Most would be used as military trainers, embedded with Iraqi military and police.
A second, far riskier proposal is what one military official called the “do or die” option — one designed to force the Iraqi government to get control over Shiite militias responsible for much of the sectarian killings in Baghdad.
“We’re not going to give up. The stakes are too high and the consequences too grave,” Bush said after meeting at the Pentagon with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Rumsfeld’s designated successor, Robert Gates, who will be sworn in on Monday.
There are competing schools of thought inside the military and the administration on whether a short-term increase in U.S. troop strength in Iraq would be enough to quell the sectarian warfare in Baghdad.
After a third straight day of soliciting war advice from top military and diplomatic officials, Bush gave no clue as to whether he will include that in his forthcoming plan. Some generals believe it would be too little, too late, in a war that already has claimed more than 2,900 U.S. lives.
Under the do-or-die plan, the U.S. military would withdraw most of its forces from urban areas, including Baghdad. The Iraqi military, with those embedded U.S. trainers, would then take over security.
That would free up more American combat forces to launch an all-out offensive against al-Qaida and Sunnni extremists in Anbar province.
NBC: Iraq government in talks with Mahdi Army
But the entire strategy hinges on the cooperation of the Shiite militias. NBC News has learned that the Iraqi government is now engaged in sensitive cease-fire talks with those militias — including cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army.
Bush said he was considering a wide range of options he has heard during a week of consultations, while rejecting ideas “that would lead to defeat.” He said the rejected ideas included “leaving before the job is done, ideas such as not helping this (Iraqi) government” to function and gain Iraqis’ confidence.
“But one thing people have got to understood is we’ll be headed toward achieving our objectives,” he said. “And I repeat: If we lose our nerve, if we’re not steadfast in our determination to help the Iraqi government succeed, we will be handing Iraq over to an enemy that would do us harm.”
Calls for ‘necessary ... hard steps’
"I've heard some ideas that would lead to defeat, and I reject those ideas," Bush said after meeting with top generals and Defense Department officials at the Pentagon. He said those ideas included "leaving before the job is done, ideas such as not helping this (Iraqi) government take the necessary and hard steps to be able to do its job."
Bush spoke with reporters after wrapping up a round of high-level talks on revising his Iraq war policy. Earlier he spoke by telephone with two Kurdish leaders in Iraq as part of what the White House called efforts to forge a "moderate bloc" behind the shaky central government in Baghdad.
Standing with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Bush said he and the nation's top military commanders had "a very candid and fruitful discussion about how to secure this country and about how to win a war that we now find ourselves in."
Bush made it clear that "there has been a lot of violence in Iraq. The violence has been horrific."
Although the White House had initially suggested that Bush would deliver his speech on Iraq strategy before Christmas, he has decided to delay it until early next year, citing Bush’s request for more time to refine and game out new policies.
Working out the details
The White House says Bush has decided the general direction he wants to take U.S. policy on Iraq and has asked his staff to work out the details as he wraps up a highly public review of the war and its aims.
Military commanders who met Tuesday with Bush sought more advisers to train the Iraqis, not more U.S. combat troops in Iraq. They also urged the administration to pour significantly more funding into equipment for Iraqi security forces, according to a defense specialist familiar with the meetings.
Gen. John Abizaid, top U.S. commander in the Middle East, and Gen. George Casey, the top general in Iraq, want more armored vehicles, body armor and other critical equipment for the Iraqis, said the defense specialist, who requested anonymity because the discussions were private.
Abizaid has told the Senate Armed Services Committee that troop levels in Iraq need to stay fairly stable and the use of military adviser teams expanded. About 140,000 U.S. troops and about 5,000 advisers are in Iraq.
The message to Bush, the defense specialist said, is that the U.S. cannot withdraw a substantial number of combat troops by early 2008, as suggested in the Iraq Study Group report, because the Iraqis will not be ready to assume control of their country. Bush is delaying making public his new Iraq policy plan in part to allow officials to work out the funding, he said.
Bush met Wednesday with senior defense officials at the Pentagon. He already has visited this week with State Department officials to review options, hosted a few outside Iraq experts, and met with Iraq’s Sunni vice president, Tariq al-Hashemi. Last week, the president held talks with the leader of the largest Shiite bloc in Iraq’s parliament, Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, and with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the president’s staunchest war ally.
Iraq has proposed that its troops assume primary responsibility for security in Baghdad early next year and that U.S. troops be shifted to the capital’s periphery, The New York Times reported on its Web site Tuesday night.
Iraq’s national security adviser, Mowaffak al-Rubaie, told the Times that the plan was presented during Bush’s meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in Amman, Jordan, on Nov. 30.
Bush’s meetings at the Pentagon capped his high-profile outreach effort surrounding last week’s presentation of the Iraq Study Group report, a blistering review from an independent, bipartisan commission.
The Iraq Study Group recommended most combat troops be withdrawn by early 2008 and the U.S. mission changed from combat to training and support of Iraqi units. It also called for an energetic effort to seek a diplomatic solution to Iraq’s violence by engaging its neighbors, including Iran and Syria.
Bush postpones announcement
Bush, cool to both of the commission’s central ideas, had been expected to follow his information-gathering with a pre-Christmas announcement of his own altered blueprint for U.S. involvement in Iraq. But the White House said Tuesday that Bush would wait until early next year.
“It’s not ready yet,” White House press secretary Tony Snow said. “There may be some areas on which there are still going to be debates, but most have kind of been ironed out.”
Dissatisfaction with the president’s handling of the war is at an all-time high. Democrats take control of Congress on Jan. 4 because of midterm elections that turned in large part on that issue.
Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., about to become Senate majority leader, criticized Bush’s decision to delay unveiling the new Iraq plan.
“It has been six weeks since the American people demanded change in Iraq. In that time Iraq has descended further toward all-out civil war and all the president has done is fire Donald Rumsfeld and conduct a listening tour,” Reid said.
“Talking to the same people he should have talked to four years ago does not relieve the president of the need to demonstrate leadership and change his policy now,” he said.