Wrapping up a series of consultations on Iraq, President Bush met at the Pentagon on Wednesday with the military's top leaders to hear their views on prospects for further troop reductions.
Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said the president spent about 90 minutes in a closed session with the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Bush was accompanied by his chief of staff, Joshua Bolten; his national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, and Vice President Dick Cheney.
Much of the meeting focused on the ongoing strains on the force and the impact that waging two wars has had on the military, Morrell said during a briefing after the session with the Joint Chiefs ended.
Bush's discussions with the service chiefs, he said, was broader than the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and also covered security threats in that region and around the world.
Bush, said Morrell, is "constantly asking the Joint Chiefs about the health of the force, about retention rates, about family life, and so that was a large part of the conversation today."
The session was being led by Navy Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs. He was presenting the consensus view of the chiefs of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps on Iraq strategy.
"This is their opportunity to make (known) their views on Iraq and the way ahead," said Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman.
It was the last in a series of Iraq consultations by Bush with his top advisers and commanders in advance of the president's decision on how to proceed in Iraq as U.S. troop levels are declining.
On Monday, Bush heard from Adm. William J. Fallon, the U.S. Central Command chief who is relinquishing his command on Friday, and from Gen. David Petraeus, the top commander in Iraq. Bush also heard Tuesday from Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
A halt in troop reductions?
After Petraeus presents his Iraq progress report to Congress in early April, Bush is expected to embrace the field commander's desire for a temporary halt in troop withdrawals beyond those already scheduled.
There are now 156,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. That number is scheduled to drop to about 140,000 by the end of July. Petraeus, with support from Gates, has said he would like to halt the reductions at that point for a period of "consolidation and evaluation" before resuming troop reductions.
The president is collecting advice from military leaders at a time of turmoil in Iraq, where fighting has flared in recent days in Baghdad as well as the southern oil port city of Basra.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was in Basra to supervise a crackdown against the spiraling violence between militia factions vying for control of the center of the country's vast oil industry located near the Iranian border. The violence has raised fears that the cease-fire declared in August by Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr could unravel, presenting the gravest challenge to the Iraqi government in months.
At Wednesday's session at the Pentagon, the Joint Chiefs were expected to tell Bush how a bigger and quicker U.S. troop reduction could help maintain the health of the entire U.S. armed forces.
Gen. George Casey, the Army chief of staff, might also have talked about his desire to reduce soldiers' tour lengths in Iraq from 15 months to 12 months.
The president is due to give a speech Thursday in Ohio on the political and economic situation in Iraq. That would be a follow-up to his speech last week focusing on recent security gains in the war, which has now entered its sixth year.