During his Iraq visit today, President Bush hinted at the prospect of troop cuts there in the months ahead.
Here's the key quote:
"General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker tell me if the kind of success we are seeing continues, it will be possible to maintain the same level of security with fewer American forces."
Here's the White House press corps pool report from President Bush's unannounced trip to Iraq.
POTUS visits Iraq’s al Anbar Province
In a trip shrouded in secrecy, President Bush made a surprise visit to Iraq’s al Asad Air Base Monday. The base is in the heart of al Anbar Province, which Bush has often pointed to as an example of the success of his troop surge in creating space for grassroots political reconciliation.
At the huge, isolated, Saddam-era base — which has a 21-kilometer perimeter and is home to some 10,000 U.S. troops — Bush was to meet with Gen. David Petraeus, Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker, Defense Secretary Robert Gates — who traveled to Iraq on his plane ahead of Bush -- Admiral Fallon, the Commander of CENTCOM and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who was aboard Air Force One.
Afterward, Bush was to meet with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and other members of the central government. Bush was to make a statement after that. Then, Bush was to follow that session with a meeting with Sunni tribal and provincial leaders who have taken the lead in battling Al Qaeda and who are beginning to make political progress in this ethnically homogenous area of Iraq.
POTUS was to cap his six hours on the ground here with a short address — maybe 10 or 15 minutes — to about 750 troops, Dana Perino said. After that, we are on our way to Australia, with a refueling stop at Diego Garcia.
First a bit more about the base: It is located in northern Iraq, about 180 kilometers west of Baghdad and 12 kilometers southwest of the Euphrates river. The base was captured by Australian special forces in April 2003, and is now a major coalition air base.
In a gaggle, National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley said the idea for the Bush visit to Anbar was hatched “five or six weeks ago” as part of the administration’s thinking about how to approach its upcoming report to Congress on the progress of the war.
Bush’s third trip to Iraq since the start of the war was a tightly held secret at the White House, with aides told on a need-to-know basis, Perino said. Reporters in the pool were called over the weekend and summoned for individual, face-to-face meetings with Perino or Gordon Johndroe, the NSC spokesman.
We were told to report for pool duty not Monday morning, as had been publicly announced, but Sunday between 6:00 and 6:30 p.m. Reporters were given maps of Andrews with our rallying point highlighted. We were told to come in through the main gate, not the usual Virginia Gate entrance. We also were told to tell only one editor at our respective news organizations, and not to do so by cell phone. Also, that editor had to be asked to not tell anyone. In addition, we were told that we could tell spouses about the impending trip, but no one else.
A manifest with the names of those on the trip was with a security aide at the gate, and reporters and staff drove their cars to a parking lot adjacent to some tennis courts on the base, not far from the usual press lot at the air terminal. There, Secret Service agents swept everything we carried and held on to our luggage, computers and other electronic devices.
We then boarded two passenger vans and were driven to the spotless hangar that houses the two planes that usually serve as Air Force One. The steps were down on one of the planes and we got on board in time to see our bags and other belongings coming up the conveyor belt onto the plane. The shades were drawn on the plane’s windows in the press compartment and we sat and waited until we felt the plane being pushed back at 7:47 p.m., about an hour after we had boarded. By 8:05 p.m., we were wheels up.
Johndroe told us that POTUS slipped out of a side door of the White House and then off the White House grounds by car — we don’t now whether it was his limo — and made his way to Andrews. Only one other car accompanied him, not his usual motorcade, in an effort to keep the subterfuge going. (Johndroe also added when asked that Mrs. Bush’s pinched nerve, which was cited as the reason for her not making the trip, is real.)
About a half hour into the flight, Johndroe came back to tell us we could go down to the baggage area and retrieve our computers and overnight bags, but he asked us to disable the wireless function while we were in flight, on the off chance that the signals could be tracked. Meanwhile, the agents held onto our BlackBerrys and phones, which we were returned to us a half hour before we landed.
About an hour after that, a casually dressed Stephen Hadley came back to gaggle, joined by war czar Gen. Douglas Lute, who wore his military fatigues, Perino, and counselor Ed Gillespie.
The White House pushed back on the idea that the whole trip was a publicity stunt. Instead, they said that POTUS wanted to meet in person with not only his commanders and Iraq ambassador, but also al-Maliki and local Sunni leaders, whom he wanted to nudge toward more political reconciliation.
Much of this will be moot by the time I can file, and there was no transcript. But I will provide a summary and the most relevant excerpts below. The stuff in quotes is verbatim from my recorder.
Dana started by announcing that the president’s visit will involve a series of three meetings and would last about six hours. She then introduced Hadley.
Hadley: “The idea for this visit arose about five or six weeks ago. We began thinking about next week and the focus on the Petraeus and Crocker testimony. The report that is due to the Congress on Sept. 15. It calls, of course, for a review of where we are on Iraq. And we began to think about how the president should prepare himself for his own role in that process. Obviously, he wants to hear from Petraeus and Crocker directly about how they assess progress on the ground, what their recommendations are for going forward. He will have an opportunity to do that meeting with them face-to-face during this trip. And, obviously, it is an advantage for him to be able to do that face-to-face. There has been a lot of talk about both the security situation and the political progress — both the issue of so-called top-down progress out of Baghdad on the national level and also bottom-up progress in places like Anbar Province. And of course this gives the president an opportunity first hand to hear from people directly involved and make his own assessments at the same time. So he will be meeting with Prime Minister Maliki who will be coming to Anbar Province. Possibly other leaders will as well from the national government ... He will obviously congratulate them for the statement that was issued about a week ago indicating a way ahead among the key leaders of the Sunni, Shia and Kurdish groups, talking about how they will work with one another, strengthening the cooperation between the prime minister and the presidency council. Talking about a sub-Cabinet, if you will, to try and focus on the reform agenda and talking about the provincial law and de-Baathification and preparing legislation in other areas for the Parliament when in reconvenes this month. So this is an important development of a week ago. So the president will want to hear from them directly about how they see things going forward at the national level. He will also be meeting with those national leaders and representatives of the Anbar Provincial Council. Again, it will be an opportunity then for him to hear what has been really a remarkable story in Anbar Province.”
Hadley went on to say that a year ago al Qaeda was in control of the capital of Ramadi, the province, as well as many of the major cities. He recalled a military intelligence officer who said, “Anbar Province is lost.”
“The president saw an opportunity to turn that situation around, “ he said, adding that the president talked about that opportunity in his speech back in January. At the time, POTUS announced that he would put 4,000 more troops in Anbar to aid the bottom-up reconciliation process.
What we’ve seen, Hadley said, is tribal and local leaders coming together to work with coalition forces and Iraqi security forces and the government “in an unified front against al Qaeda and they have had pretty remarkable success.”
“The president wants to see that for himself. Wants to hear from and talk to the Iraqis that have been at the forefront of that pretty remarkable event.”
Finally, he said, it would be “useful for him to meet together both with the provincial leaders and the leaders from the government in Baghdad” because a critical element of success in the future will be for the “bottom up to meet the top down. For the government in Baghdad to extend assistance and support -- economic, political support, to continue to provide security support to what is happening in Anbar Province. There are indications that that is what is happening. And the president, of course, will want to hear about that and encourage it. ”
"And also for the local leaders in Anbar Province to increase their ties with the Iraqi government,” he added.
"One of the things we are looking forward to is lay the groundwork for provincial elections.
"Finally, of course, the president will want to talk to our men and women in uniform. He, of course, will want to thank them for their work and their sacrifice.
“We think it is the kind of thing the president needs to do in order to go into the following week and make the kinds of decisions he needs to make. The president heard about this idea and instantly took to it and that’s why we’re doing it.”
AFTER HADLEY SPOKE, LUTE, GILLESPIE, JOHNDROE AND PERINO TALKED TO US. WTH LUTE AND HADLEY JUMPING IN AT TIMES. SUMMARIES AND QUOTES FOLLOW:
Gen. Lute described al Asad as a Saddam-era airbase built in the 1970s that the coalition has been using since 2003. It is halfway between Baghdad and the Syrian border, right along the Euphrates River Valley, he said.
“This is the middle of the middle of the great desert in al Anbar province, but it is geographically close to the center of the province itself. “
The troops here include 7,000 Marines and 3,000 Army. He also outlined the meetings that were noted above. The Marine air wing is headquartered here.
Ed Gillespie said there would be a photo release from the POTUS meeting with Petraeus and Crocker.
There will be a statement from POTUS after the Maliki meeting, and at the beginning of the meeting with the tribal leaders there could be a pool spray, if it is amenable to them. After that, there’s the president are the president’s remarks to the troops.
Gillespie said the Bush statement would be on the political progress that has been achieved in Iraq. The remarks to troops will focus more on the military progress, he said.
Officials said that the president’s remarks — both in the statement and in the remarks to troops — would be piped to D.C. and to Hawaii.
Asked how he expected the visit to affect the debate in D.C. over the war, Ed said:
“It is hard to tell. I think there has been a lot of information that has been added over the course of August. Because so many members of Congress have come over to see for themselves, as well, and this will be a part of it.”
On the president’s trip, he added, “There is no substitute for that kind of first-hand experience and seeing directly for yourself and talking directly to not only to national leaders but provincial leaders. I think the information that he gets here, hopefully, will be a contribution to the discussion that we will have in September.”
Steve Hadley on the idea that while Anbar and Baghdad are better, other areas are worse off:
He pointed out that before the surge, 80 percent of the sectarian violence was within 100 kilometers of Baghdad. “There was a risk that Iraqis were losing control of their capital and all the rest of the country was watching.” So the reinforcements were needed to stabilize things in Anbar and Baghdad.
“We’re seeing the fruits of that effort,” he said.
Lute said the progress in Anbar has three factors: Sunni tribal leaders, the nature of Al Qaeda and the surge.
“Al Qaeda was decisive here, but not the way he intended to be decisive. He was so intimidating. So brutal, that actually the Sunni leaders decided they were not going to put up with it.”
... Also, the Sunni momentum was broadened by the troops from the surge.
Can we cement the provincial progress by way of top-down connections? Lute asked before answering his own question by listing some things that need to happen:
“Enlisting the tribal security forces into the Iraqi security forces, which, of course, only the central government can authorize. This has to do with allocating the central budget — largely oil revenues -- down to the provinces.”
He said Anbar has a $107 million fiscal year ’07 budget, which has been allocated to it. “We got to make sure that money gets down there, it gets designated and it gets spent. This is all Iraqi money.”
Anbar has asked for additional funding above and beyond the $107 million, and Lute said: “So we will be watching carefully to see if the Maliki government can fund that. These are the sorts of top-down to the bottom-up connections that Steve was mentioning.”
Hadley on why the central government is wary of empowering what are, essentially, Sunni militias:
“We have been concerned, of course, about the militias operating outside of the government. So the government is obviously concerned that we do not create or allow to be created militias operating outside of the governmental authority. “
And that is why it important for local militias “to get organized, vetted and then become part of the Iraqi security forces,” Hadley said.
“This connection between the bottom up and top down is beginning to be made. And it will be an opportunity when the president meets with representatives of the national government and representatives from the provinces for him to encourage that process,” Hadley said.
Asked what would he say to those who would call the trip a big photo op, a big publicity stunt, Hadley said:
“One, the president, having to make some important decisions, felt it was important for him to come first hand. Hear from his commanders first hand. Hear from Prime Minister Maliki and the other national authorities. And hear from these people in Anbar who are making it go. There is no substitute for sitting down, looking him in the eye, and having a conversation with him. The president felt this is something he had to do in order to put himself in a position to make some important decisions.”
That is why members of Congress have been coming to Iraq, Hadley said.
“This is an important debate and everyone needs to be prepared as best they can to participate in it.”
"It makes sense to come to Anbar, because it is one of two areas of focus of the president’s January speech," Hadley said.
Asked again about it being a photo op, Hadley said, "Would you guys like us to come without you? Sure, we’re going to bring press along and people are going to see it.”
Asked about the group that planned and executed the trip, Hadley said himself, Lute, Gillespie, Rove, Kaplan, Bolten and Vice President Cheney all participated in conceiving and planning the president’s trip.
Asked whether al Asad is a safe place for Bush to go, Lute answered:
“This is a large base, well secured, 10,000 U.S. troops there. It is relatively secure.”
Asked whether Iraqis knew Bush was coming, Lute stepped up only to demur. “We left that part of this equation to Ryan Crocker,” he said.
Asked if the president would be safe going to a nearby town, Lute again demurred:
“I think one of the reasons we are going here is to get that kind of fidelity from people on the ground. So that is a great question to ask of one of the Marine general officers or one of the senior Marines there.”
Asked why no time for POTUS off base, Lute said, “He is on a tight timeline. We didn’t really approach it like he is going to leave the base.”
“He has to get into Australia for the APEC meeting,” Gillespie added.
Johndroe: "He said that Gates is on his own plane and should arrive an hour before Bush."
He mentioned that Bush had no motorcade to Andrews, and that AF1 took off after dark, with POTUS and Rice aboard. He said he did not know when asked whether there would be any fighter escorts during the trip.
Perino, unprompted, taking another swing to knock down the idea that the trip is publicity stunt:
“There are some people who might try to derive this trip as a photo opportunity. We wholeheartedly disagree. This is an opportunity for the president to meet with his commander on the ground and his ambassador on the ground while they are in fact all on the ground together. It’s also a chance for him to meet with Prime Minister Maliki and other national government leaders. And he will be able to look Prime Minister Maliki in the eye and talk with him about the progress that is starting to happen in Iraq, what we hope to see and the challenges that remain.”
“He will also be able to meet with some of the provincial leaders who have put their lives on the line, their families on the line in order to help fight against what is a common enemy which is al Qaeda. A year ago, al Qaeda was in charge of running Anbar and our Marines have made a remarkable turnaround in this area, working with these tribal sheiks. They’ve had a tremendous accomplishment. The president wants to come see it for himself, hear from them as well as thank them for all that they have done.”
“Of course, he is not going to be leaving the air base and he will be safe. But he will have the same opportunity that members of Congress who have come to Iraq throughout the month of August --as they should-- in order to be well informed before we have what everybody is anticipating to be a hearty debate about the future of this conflict. So I think it is only right and appropriate that we take advantage of this opportunity for the president to meet with these folks and, of course, we always bring you along.”
AF-1 touched down at 3:45 p.m. Iraq time. POTUS was greeted upon arrival by Ambassador Crocker, Secretary Gates, Gen. Peter Pace, Admiral Fallon, Gen. Petraeus, Gen. Odierno, Major Gen. Walter Gaskin, Brig. Gen. Timothy Hanifen, commanding general 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing (forward), and Sgt. Maj. Lewis Bell, of the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing.
The al Asad air base is the second largest air base in Iraq. It is a parched, sunny, dusty place and troops here say temperatures today are about average for this time of year—about 115 degrees. After his tarmac greeting, POTUS, wearing a dark blue short-sleeved shirt and slacks posed for pictures before being driven in a motorcade to a concrete building on base where a Marine gave him a short briefing.
POTUS leaned slightly forward, both hands on a makeshift table, as the Marine with a pointer in hand, gave an overview. About 20 troops in fatigues framed POTUS during the briefing, making for better pictures, no doubt.
From what your pooler could overhear, the Marine said there was progress being made with Iraqi security forces in Anbar. They are handling more urban duties, allowing the Marines to hunt for insurgents in the desert. The Marine did say that there is a problem with the short home leaves—five months, which he said strains training, not to mention family life.
As we were being ushered out, POTUS was heard to ask about morale. “Morale? How is morale?”
“Very high, sir,” was the response from the Marine, whose name I still don’t have.
From there, it was back to the heat and the motorcade. POTUS was taken to a part of the base where troops from Regimental Combat Team-2, Marine Wing Support Combat Patrol had their vehicles—humvees and other light armored vehicles- in line. The Marines stood by the side of their vehicles as POTUS came, shook hands and posed for pictures with them, sometimes asking aides to use the Marines’ cameras for snap shots.
From there, we left and were back to the file –or what passes for it. Internet connections are slow, and private accounts are tough to access. POTUS is now off to his meeting with Petraeus and Crocker, and co. Next is Maliki, after which they are to make a joint statement. Then it is a session with tribal leaders, remarks to the troops and back to the plane.