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President Bush Delivers Prospect of Troop Cut in Iraq

September 3, 2007 at 6:05 PM EDT
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Today’s developments in Iraq, we start with President Bush’s quick and unannounced trip.

President Bush bypassed Baghdad on his surprise trip to Iraq, instead landing at Al Assad Air Base in the western Sunni province of al-Anbar. He was greeted by his so called war-council, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker; Defense Secretary Robert Gates; and Army General David Petraeus. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley, and Admiral William Fallon, the U.S. commander in the Middle East, were also there.

In the 110-degree heat, the president visited with some of the 10,000 servicemen and women stationed in Anbar. The trip, his third since the war began, was shrouded in extreme secrecy for security reasons.

MARINE PILOT: In 2005, our efforts were focused on population centers and the cities; now we’re looking at more in the outskirts and the desert.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mr. Bush was briefed by a Marine Cobra pilot who said morale was “very high,” but noted long and repeated tours in Iraq caused stress at home.

MARINE PILOT: Our training time back at home is very limited. We’ve found ourselves taking post-deployment leave at the same time conducting pre-deployment training. And then stress on the families, year after year only being home for five months, it’s become a little harder each time to get in that normal training back in the United States.

JUDY WOODRUFF: There are 162,000 U.S. troops serving in Iraq, including the extra 30,000 sent by the president as part of the surge to secure Baghdad and surrounding areas.

Mr. Bush also met with Iraq’s leaders, including Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and President Jalal Talabani. Al-Maliki’s been criticized by U.S. politicians from both parties for not doing enough to tamp down violence and advance political reconciliation. Political and military gains will be at the center of Ambassador Crocker’s and General Petraeus’ report due to Congress next week.

GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: These two fine Americans will report to Congress next week, and I urge members of both parties in Congress to listen to what they have to say. Congress shouldn’t jump to conclusions until the general and the ambassador report.

When you stand on the ground here in Anbar and hear from the people who live here, you can see what the future of Iraq can look like.

Bush welcomed by troops

President George W. Bush
When we begin to draw down troops from Iraq, it will be from a position of strength and success, not from a position of fear and failure.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Later, when the president met troops, he received a warm welcome.

GEORGE W. BUSH: I'm incredibly proud to be the commander-in-chief of such a great group of men and women.

The surge of operations that began in June is improving security throughout Iraq. These military successes are paving the way for the political reconciliation and economic progress the Iraqis need to transform their country.

When Iraqis feel safe in their own homes and neighborhoods, they can focus their efforts on building a stable, civil society, with functioning government structures at the local and provincial and national levels.

The kind of bottom-up progress that your efforts are bringing to Anbar is vital to the success and stability of a free Iraq. See, Iraqis need this stability to build a more peaceful future. And Americans needs this stability to prevent the chaos that allows the terrorists to set up bases from which they can plot and plan attacks on our homeland.

JUDY WOODRUFF: He also assured them that any drawdown in troop levels would not be in response to politics back home.

GEORGE W. BUSH: Those decisions will be based on a calm assessment by our military commanders on the conditions on the ground, not a nervous reaction by Washington politicians to poll results in the media.

In other words, when we begin to draw down troops from Iraq, it will be from a position of strength and success, not from a position of fear and failure.

The significance of Anbar

Michael Gordon
The New York Times
The key question, though, is to take what's happening in Anbar and to transfer this to other parts of Iraq, which are less far along.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The president left Iraq for Australia, where he will attend the annual Asia-Pacific Economic Conference in Sydney.

New York Times military correspondent Michael Gordon has been reporting from Iraq for the past 10 weeks, and he joins us now.

Michael, good to see you.

MICHAEL GORDON, Military Correspondent, New York Times: Nice to be here.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The president didn't go to Baghdad. He went to Anbar province. What's the significance of this to the Iraqi people, to the Iraqi leaders?

MICHAEL GORDON: Well, I think there's obviously a political significance in the United States, but there's a substantive significance. Anbar is the part of Iraq, western part of Iraq, where the U.S. really began to work with the tribes prior to the surge, but the effort's really taken off since then.

And, really, this is the best case that the administration has to make in the United States, which is that it's begun to work with Sunni tribes, with former insurgents, to work with them against al-Qaida militants, to establish security in Iraq, and that, even though the central government in Iraq and the authorities in Baghdad are pretty much gridlocked, it's making progress at the local level.

The key question, though, is to take what's happening in Anbar and to transfer this to other parts of Iraq, which are less far along.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, we talk about the significance in the United States. What about the significance to people like Prime Minister Maliki, who the president had come sit with him, meet with him in Anbar? What does he take away presumably from this?

MICHAEL GORDON: Well, when the surge began, the effort was really at encouraging some kind of top-down reconciliation. The idea is that the surge is going to set the conditions in terms of security for the Iraqis to reconcile at the national level. That hasn't happened, and it's not going to happen before next week when General Petraeus testifies.

But the surge had a sort of inadvertent consequence. The infusion of American forces into Iraq at the local level emboldened a lot of Sunnis to align themselves with the Americans. These are in part self-interested marriages of convenience against a common foe, al-Qaida of Iraq.

And this is an effort now to take what's happening on the local level in Iraq and kind of encourage a kind of reconciliation from the bottom up. And the task now is to task these disparate groups around Iraq, in Anbar and Diyala and Arab Jabour, and get them to work effectively with the Iraqi government. We're talking about Sunni groups, including former insurgents, working with the Shiite-dominated government in Iraq. It's not an easy thing to accomplish.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And that's what you were there reporting on. You wrote about it in the New York Times Magazine just yesterday. Is it working in other places besides Anbar?

MICHAEL GORDON: It's working pretty well in Anbar. It's beginning to take off in Baquba and Diyala province, where I was in June. It's at a very early and fragile, I would say, phase just south of Baghdad in Arab Jabour, in the particular town I was with, and Horijab.

The process of getting the Iraqi government to work effectively with these groups is also at a very early phase, because when the Shiite-dominated government, the Maliki government, looks at these groups, they see them as former and perhaps future insurgents who may take up arms against the government once the Americans leave.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Threats to them, in other words?

MICHAEL GORDON: There is that perception among some members of the Maliki government. And what General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker have been trying to do, they're acting like a midwife, trying to bring these -- they're trying to broker a relationship between these Sunni groups around the country and the Maliki government and say, "Hey, wait a second. You need to embrace these groups and institutionalize them by transforming them into local police and embedding them in the Iraqi government structure."

Al-Maliki's reaction

Michael Gordon
The New York Times
We're in a situation in Iraq where security is local. These groups have an incentive to establish security in their own town to keep out al-Qaida, to keep out the Mahdi Army, because they know the Americans aren't going to be staying there forever.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So how is Maliki and his government, how are they reacting to this? How are they accepting what's happening in Anbar and these other places?

MICHAEL GORDON: They accept what's happening in Anbar because it's in Anbar, and Anbar is a part of Iraq that has no real resources. It's almost entirely Sunni, and it's fairly remote from Baghdad. It's no kind of threat to them, and they're going after al-Qaida. That's really not been an issue for Maliki.

The closer this gets to Baghdad, when it gets to Baquba or when it gets into areas south of the capital -- actually, it's now happening in Baghdad, in specific neighborhoods, in Amiriyah, areas in Kazimiyah, it's happening in neighborhoods in Baghdad. Then the Maliki government becomes more nervous about this process.

But I think the significance of President Bush's visit is he's pretty much signaling Maliki that this is going to happen and the U.S. is going to continue to work with these groups, kind of whether the Maliki government likes it or not, and the task is to try to pull together and make this work.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And by "this," again, you mean this sort of ground-up reconciliation, province by province, city by city? Is that what we're saying here, and hoping that it all adds up to reconciliation across Iraq?

MICHAEL GORDON: It may not add up to reconciliation across Iraq. But, you know, Tip O'Neill once said, "All politics is local." And we're in a situation in Iraq where security is local. These groups have an incentive to establish security in their own town to keep out al-Qaida, to keep out the Mahdi Army, because they know the Americans aren't going to be staying there forever and they want to be able to protect their own neighborhoods.

And what is happening is there's a bit of a patchwork all around the country -- well, not everywhere, but it's emerging, different parts of the country -- of local security groups that are being organized by the Americans. They're arming themselves. The Americans hope to turn them into police.

And the idea is to take this kind of network, knit it together, and somehow, some way to create some stability in Iraq. Whether it amounts to reconciliation, that's a tall order. That may be unobtainable.

Anticipating White House reports

Michael Gordon
The New York Times
There will be a troop drawdown, because the outer life of the surge, just according to the Army deployment schedules, is the end of April.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I'm listening to the words you're using. "U.S. hope" is to do that, "somehow, some way." What are the odds here?

MICHAEL GORDON: I may be the one person in Washington who actually doesn't know what's going to happen in Iraq and hasn't decided in advance that this is going to fail or succeed. I think it shows promise. I think it's the best thing that General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker have going in Iraq at this time. And I think we'll see over the next several months really whether this will build into something from sort of a localized set of arrangements into something that's a little more systematic and institutionalized.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, you talk about Washington. All the talk here is speculation about the Petraeus report, the Crocker report next week, whether it's going to lead to a troop drawdown. Is that the talk in Iraq?

MICHAEL GORDON: I think, really, this is almost an old issue. There will be a troop drawdown, because the outer life of the surge, just according to the Army deployment schedules, is the end of April.

So, so much of this debate in Washington, to my mind, is almost beside the point. We're debating whether we'll begin the drawdown in December or January or April. It's going to happen, because unless the Army extends its tours to 18 months -- which it's not going to do -- the surge will run its course, and we'll be on a path down.

The real issue is not when these reductions begin. It's, what is the next phase? What is the mission of the American troops at that point? How do we begin to pull back a bit, reduce our numbers, and not forfeit the security gains that have been made? I think there's much too much talk about what the troop levels should be and not enough about what the mission of the American forces should be next year.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And maybe that's something Michael Gordon is going back to Iraq to report on.

MICHAEL GORDON: I'm going back later this month.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, we'll be following you. Michael, thank you very much for being with us.

MICHAEL GORDON: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Appreciate it.