Bush holds 'war council' with top aides in Iraq
Baghdad, September 3, 2007
US President George W Bush held a 'council of war' with his security team at a desert air base in western Iraq on Monday, a week before testimony to Congress that could influence policy on the war.
Bush, heading for a showdown with congressional war critics pressing him to begin withdrawing troops, flew secretly to the Al Asad Air Base in Anbar province, where he was also due to meet Iraq's Shi'ite prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki.
The president was accompanied by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and national security adviser Steven Hadley. Defense Secretary Robert Gates arrived separately.
Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said Bush, Rice and Gates would meet their top commanders, Iraqi leaders including Maliki, and tribal leaders in Anbar, once a flashpoint province but now a success story for the US military.
'This is very much the meeting of the war council,' Morrell told reporters at the dusty American air base in baking heat.
'This will be the last big gathering of the president's advisers and the Iraqi leaders before the president makes a decision on the way forward.'
The decision to meet in Anbar is highly symbolic. Such a trip by Bush would have been unthinkable just months ago, when the province was the most dangerous in Iraq for US troops.
But a rebellion by Sunni Arab tribes against Sunni Islamist al Qaeda has pacified Anbar and will likely be held up as a sign that the US military strategy is working when US commander General David Petraeus gives testimony to Congress on Sept. 10.
Petraeus will be joined by US ambassador Ryan Crocker.
They will give their assessment on the impact of Bush's decision to send an extra 30,000 extra troops to Iraq, raising the complement to 160,000.
The White House is required to submit its own report on the situation in Iraq by Sept. 15. The stopover in Iraq had not been announced in advance.
Bush, who visited Iraq in June last year and previously in November 2003, was on his way to a meeting of Asia-Pacific leaders in Sydney and was due to spend six hours in Iraq.
'The president felt this was something he had to do in order to put himself in a position to make some important decisions,' Hadley told reporters en route to Iraq.
Bush is under pressure from opposition Democrats and some senior Republicans who want US troops to start leaving Iraq after more than four years of war in which 3,700 American soldiers and tens of thousands of Iraqis have been killed.
Lawmakers want him to show Iraq's divided, Shi'ite-led government that the US commitment is not open-ended.
On Friday, Bush urged Congress to wait for the assessments on Iraq's security and political situation before making any judgments on a war that is increasingly unpopular at home and has damaged US credibility abroad.
The US military says sectarian attacks have fallen since the US reinforcements deployed under Bush's plan to give Iraqi leaders 'breathing space' to foster reconciliation between the warring majority Shi'ites and Sunni Arabs.
But while some security gains have been achieved, no key laws aimed at healing deep sectarian divisions have been passed, and Maliki's cabinet has been hit by the withdrawal of nearly half his ministers.
Despite what they see as promising trends in Anbar, US officials were taking few chances with Bush's safety.
His travel plans were known to only a few trusted aides, journalists flying with him were sworn to secrecy and even Maliki was apparently given little, if any, advance notice.
On his first stop at the base, Bush was briefed by a young officer in desert camouflage who recounted recent successes against insurgents but also complained about long combat rotations without enough leave at home in between.
'Our training at home has been very limited ... The stress is very hard on the families,' he told Bush.