Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Bush raises possibility of years-long Iraq presence

Bush raises possibility of years-long Iraq presence
By Steve Holland

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President George W. Bush held out the possibility on Tuesday of a U.S. troop presence in Iraq for many years, saying a full withdrawal would depend on decisions by future U.S. presidents and Iraqi governments.

Bush, struggling to rebound from low job approval ratings that he blamed largely on the war, was asked at a news conference if there would come a time when no U.S. troops are in Iraq.

"That, of course, is an objective. And that will be decided by future presidents and future governments of Iraq," said Bush, who will be president until January 2009.

Three years after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, there are 133,000 U.S. troops in the country.

Bush has laid the groundwork for possible U.S. troop reductions by the end of the year, saying he aims to get Iraqi forces sufficiently trained to take over by then.

But until now he had not given a prediction on how long there might be an American presence. Many Arabs are concerned that the United States might want a permanent presence in Iraq, and those concerns were likely to be heightened by Bush's comments.

Vice President Dick Cheney, speaking to troops in Illinois after the news conference, held out hope for troop reductions but said the decisions would be made by military commanders.

"As the Iraqi forces gain strength and experience, and as the political process advances, we'll be able to decrease troop levels without losing our capacity to defeat the terrorists," Cheney told soldiers at Scott Air Force Base.

Cheney linked his call for patience over Iraq to what he said was a need for the United States to project a strong image after the September 11 attacks on the United States.

"Terrorist attacks are not caused by the use of strength. They are invited by the perception of weakness," he said.

Opinion polls show Americans have become increasingly dissatisfied over a war in which more than 2,300 U.S. troops have died. Democrats have seized on this in a congressional election year to criticize the Republican president's handling of the war.

Appearing for nearly an hour at his second formal solo news conference of the year, Bush mixed his vision of progress in Iraq with a realistic description of events, reflecting a recent White House pattern of admitting mistakes have been made in the war.

He acknowledged errors in the Iraqi reconstruction effort had cost valuable time in rebuilding and said the U.S. military was adjusting to insurgent tactics.

But he said his bedrock belief remained that Iraq can become a beacon of democracy in the Middle East.

"I'm optimistic we'll succeed," he said. "If not, I'd pull our troops out. If I didn't believe we had a plan for victory, I wouldn't leave our people in harm's way."

Bush said insurgent attacks that have killed hundreds of Iraqis in recent weeks were designed in part by the attackers to create horrific images for U.S. television screens and generate doubts about the mission among Americans.

"Please don't take that as criticism," Bush told reporters. "But it also is a realistic assessment of the enemy's capability to affect the debate, and they know that."

Bush also said he disagreed with those who said Iraq had fallen into a civil war.

Asked whether he agreed with former Iraqi interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's comments that Iraq was already in civil war, Bush said: "I do not, there are other voices coming out of Iraq."

"We all recognize that there is violence, that there is sectarian violence," Bush said. "The way I look at it, the Iraqis took a look and decided not to give in to civil war."

A Newsweek magazine poll conducted last week showed Bush's approval rating fell to 36 percent, down 21 points from a year ago, amid discontent about Iraq. The survey said 65 percent of Americans were dissatisfied with Bush's handling of the war.

(Additional reporting by Tabassum Zakaria in Washington and Caren Bohan in Illinois)