Grieving parents have camped out in protest near Bush's ranch.
KNIGHT RIDDER NEWSPAPERS
CRAWFORD, Texas -- President Bush on Thursday downplayed the possibility of a large-scale troop withdrawal from Iraq next spring, dismissing his military advisers' talk of a drawdown as rumors and speculation.
After meeting with his top foreign policy and military aides at his Texas ranch, Bush seemed eager to tamp down hopes for a withdrawal anytime soon. He said Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is considering ways to increase troop strength temporarily to guard against an expected increase in violence in the run-up to Iraqi elections scheduled for December.
The mixed signals from the administration about the possibility of withdrawing significant numbers of American troops from Iraq reflect not only the stubborn military and political problems in Iraq, but also a growing conflict within the administration over its political and national security objectives.
Determined to stay
With U.S. casualties mounting in the last few weeks, the strains on the U.S. military growing, the financial cost of the war growing and public support for Bush's handling of Iraq declining, remaining in Iraq until the country no longer needs U.S. troops could pose problems for some Republicans in next year's congressional elections.
The president voiced anguish over the loss of life but reiterated his determination to stay until Iraqis are ready to replace American troops.
"Pulling troops out early would betray the Iraqis," Bush said. "My position has been clear. Therefore, the position of this government is clear. As Iraqis stand up, we'll stand down."
Army Gen. George Casey, the top commander in Iraq, told reporters late last month that the Pentagon could order a "fairly substantial" withdrawal as early as the spring if conditions in Iraq improve.
"I suspect what you were hearing was speculation based upon progress that some are seeing in Iraq," Bush said when asked if the comments reflected administration policy.
This year's annual gathering of top administration advisers at the Bush ranch in Texas came after some the deadliest weeks yet in Iraq. Bush acknowledged problems on both the military and the political fronts in Iraq.
He offered a mixed assessment of the effort to train Iraqi security forces -- the key factor in his decision on when to bring U.S. troops home.
"There's not that many that can stand alone yet, but there are a lot more that have gone from the raw recruit stage to plenty capable," Bush said of the Iraqis. "The important thing for the American people to know is we're making progress."
The president also urged Iraqis to meet Monday's deadline for a new constitution despite disputes over the status of women, the role of Islam and how to share power among Iraq's religious and ethnic groups.
Bush has often portrayed the drafting of a new Iraqi constitution as a pivotal step in Iraq's transition to democracy, but he and his advisers recently have sought to lower expectations for any dramatic change after Monday's deadline, assuming Iraqis can meet it.
"Obviously, there are some difficult issues," he said. "Hopefully, the drafters of the constitution understand our strong belief that women ought to be treated equally in Iraqi society."
Bush's summer break also has been shadowed by a group of protesters led by Cindy Sheehan, whose son, Casey Sheehan, was killed in Iraq last year. Sheehan and her followers have set up camp on the road leading to Bush's 1,600-acre spread, demanding a meeting with the president.
"I grieve for every death. It breaks my heart to think about a family weeping over the loss of a loved one," Bush said. "I've also heard the voices of those saying pull out now. ... I just strongly disagree."
Aides said Bush, who met with Sheehan in a group of other grieving parents last year, had no plans to stop by her campsite.