President Bush said Saturday he is open to the possibility of slowing or stopping plans to bring home more U.S. troops from Iraq, defying domestic demands to speed the withdrawals.
Updated on war developments, Bush said the U.S. presence in Iraq will outlast his presidency.
Bush said any decision about troop levels "needs to be based upon success," but that there was no discussion about specific numbers when he was briefed by Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, and Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Baghdad.
The president was cheered by news that Iraq's parliament had approved legislation reinstating thousands of former supporters of Saddam Hussein's dissolved Baath party to government jobs. Bush had prodded Iraqi leaders for more than a year to enact the law.
"It's an important step toward reconciliation," Bush said as he opened talks with Bahrain's King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa. "It's an important sign that the leaders of that country understand that they must work together to meet the aspirations of the Iraqi people."
War dominates Kuwait stop
The first U.S. president to visit Bahrain received a splashy welcome. Sword-waving men in flowing robes and headdresses swayed and danced to rhythmic music in a palace courtyard. The president and the king were presented with swords and flashed them skyward.
The war, now in its fifth year, was a dominant theme during Bush's stops in Kuwait and Bahrain, two Persian Gulf nations crucial to U.S. military efforts in the region. Kuwait, invaded by Saddam and liberated by a U.S.-led war in 1991, is a major military staging area for the deployment of U.S. troops and equipment. Bahrain is headquarters of the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet.
Bush, speaking to U.S. forces in Kuwait, gave one of his most optimistic assessments of the war. "There is no doubt in my mind when history was written, the final page will say: Victory was achieved by the United States of America for the good of the world," he said.
Recommendation for troop levels
Bush began the day receiving an hour-long briefing from Petraeus and Crocker at Camp Arifjan, the largest U.S. base in Kuwait and home to about 9,000 American troops. Acting on the two men's recommendation a year ago, Bush ordered a buildup of 30,000 U.S. forces in Iraq. In September, again on their advice, Bush announced he would withdraw some troops from by July — essentially the 30,000 in the buildup — but still keep the U.S. level there at about 130,000.
With Petraeus at his side, Bush said, "My attitude is, if he didn't want to continue the drawdown, that's fine with me, in order to make sure we succeed, see. I said to the general, `If you want to slow her down, fine. It's up to you.'"
Petraeus and Crocker are to give Congress an update on Iraq in March and make a recommendation about troop levels.
"Iraq is now a different place from one year ago," the president said. "Much hard work remains, but levels of violence are significantly reduced. Hope is returning to Baghdad and hope is returning to towns and villages throughout the country."
War opposition grows in U.S.
Polls show people in the U.S. overwhelmingly oppose the war. The Democratic-led Congress has tried for a year to force Bush to order withdrawals or set deadlines for pullbacks. But Bush, supported by most GOP lawmakers, has prevailed in every showdown.
Iran also is a main issue of Bush's trip, particularly in the five Gulf nations he is visiting. Nervous about Iran's military might and rising influence, Gulf leaders also are anxious about last week's confrontation between U.S. and Iranian naval vessels off their shore.
Arab allies want assurances that Bush is not interested in starting a war that could threaten military bases on their soil or the lucrative oil trade through the Strait of Hormuz. But they also want security commitments from the president.
Bush said Iran "has supported extremist groups with training and lethal aid."
'Two nations share common vision'
Petraeus told reporters that the overall flow of weaponry from Iran into Iraq appears to be down, but attacks with "explosively formed projectiles" tied to Tehran are up by a factor of two or three in recent days. "Frankly, we are trying to determine why that might be," he said.
The roadside bombs, known as EFPs, are armor-piercing explosives that have killed hundreds of U.S. soldiers in Iraq. U.S. military officials have said for months that mainly Shiite Iran has been supplying the devices to Shiite militias in Iraq. Tehran denies it.
In Bahrain, Bush congratulated the king for holding free elections and noted the election two years ago of a female member of parliament. "Our two nations share a common vision for the future of the Middle East," Bush said at the welcome ceremony.
Bush's comments echoed his praise for similar democratic gains in Kuwait, where women were given the vote in 2005.
Posing for pictures in Bahrain with the king, Bush said, "I know you've been concerned about Iraq and the politics of Iraq." Bush went on to talk about the action in Iraq's parliament.
"I come with an upbeat message, a hopeful message — a message that will prevail here in the Middle East," Bush said.
Earlier, in Kuwait, Bush spoke optimistically about Iraq despite his oft-stated frustrations about the slow pace of progress.
"I'm not making excuses for a government, but to go from a tyranny to a democracy overnight is virtually impossible," Bush said. "And so when you say, `Am I pleased with the progress?' _what they have gone through and where they are today I think is good progress. Have they done enough? No. Are we going to continue to work with them to do more? Absolutely. Absolutely."
Our message is very clear: It's in your interest that you pass good law.
A White House spokesman, Gordon Johndroe, said Bush called Jordan's King Abdullah II to update him on his trip to the Middle East. The visit is built around Bush's fresh drive to secure a peace pact between Israel and the Palestinians this year.
"He told his majesty that he was encouraged by what he found in Israel and the Palestinian territories and hopeful about the progress that can be made there," Johndroe said.