The top U.S. commander in Iraq backed away on Wednesday from his prediction that a substantial pullout of U.S. troops could begin by next spring, as the White House undertakes a new campaign to win public support for the war effort.
Gen. George Casey’s latest assessment came as President Bush — down in the polls and criticized for his hurricane response — starts to turn his focus back to the fight against terrorism and to Iraq, the issues that helped him win re-election last year.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Vice President Dick Cheney plan speeches on Iraq in the next few days, followed by a presidential address in Washington on Oct. 6.
Bush on Wednesday sent Casey and Gen. John Abizaid, the commander of U.S. Central Command, to Capitol Hill to update lawmakers on war operations. “We’re on the offense,” Bush said, the two generals at his side in the Rose Garden. “We have a plan to win.”
Bush warned of an upsurge in violence before Iraqis vote Oct. 15 on a new constitution. He said that insurgents ultimately will fail.
‘A little greater uncertainty’
Casey, the most senior commander of coalition forces in Iraq, repeatedly has said “fairly substantial” troop withdrawals could happen after parliamentary balloting in December election if the political process stayed on track, if the insurgency did not expand and if the training of Iraqi security forces continued as planned.
After the commanders met with senators, reporters asked Casey whether he still believed that to be the case, given current conditions in Iraq.
“I think right now we’re in a period of a little greater uncertainty than when I was asked that question back in July and March,” Casey said.
“Until we’re done with this political process here with the referendum and the elections in December, I think it’s too soon to tell,” Casey said.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld’s spokesman later played down Casey’s comments. “In July he had one assessment. He has an assessment now that could still result in what he said earlier, it could result in no change, it could result in more,” Lawrence Di Rita said.
Casey, Abizaid to testify Thursday
Casey and Abizaid were to testify on Thursday before the Senate and House Armed Services committees with Rumsfeld and Gen. Richard B. Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Cheney’s speech is planned for Monday from Camp Lejeune, a Marine base in North Carolina. Rice plans to address some of the administration’s political opponents Friday at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.
The school for diplomats-in-training has a liberal tradition. The dean, Anne-Marie Slaughter, this month criticized the way the Iraq war is being fought and compared the Abu Ghraib prison scandal with Hurricane Katrina. “We are as individual Americans ashamed,” she said at a conference sponsored by the liberal New America Foundation.
The administration’s focus on Iraq comes amid negative news about soaring gasoline prices, the war and the federal response to Katrina.
Troop deaths erode support for war
Daily reports of U.S. troops deaths — approaching 2,000 — have helped drive down public support in the U.S. for the war.
In an AP-Ipsos poll this month, only 37 percent approved or leaned toward approval of how Bush has handled the situation in Iraq. The percentage who disapproved strongly outweighed those who approved strongly by 46 percent to 22 percent.
The administration’s public relations campaign seems similar to one in June that followed a six-week wave of suicide bombings, kidnappings and beheadings that killed more than 1,000 people.
The violence led some Republicans to join Democrats in calling for a strategy to bring U.S. troops home.
Senate Democrats said in a letter Wednesday to Rumsfeld that he should provide “frank answers” to the public’s questions about Iraq, including the status of the training of Iraqi security forces and expected U.S. troop levels over the next year.
“Continued stonewalling, or simply saying these answers are ’unknowable’ or are ’conditions based,’ are no longer satisfactory,” the lawmakers said. “The Congress and the American people deserve better information.”