- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 20, 2006

12:42 p.m.

Summing up a year of setbacks, President Bush conceded today that insurgents in Iraq thwarted U.S. efforts at “establishing security and stability throughout the country.”

Looking to change course, Mr. Bush said he has not decided whether to order a short-term surge in U.S. troops in Iraq in hopes of gaining control of the violent and chaotic situation there.

The president spoke as Robert Gates made his first visit to Iraq since being sworn in earlier in the week as defense secretary. Mr. Bush said he has asked his new Pentagon boss to report to him as quickly as possible on plans to enlarge the size of the Army and Marine Corps.

At his traditional year-end news conference, Mr. Bush said the United States will “ask more of our Iraqi partners” in 2007, and he pledged to work with the new Democratic Congress, as well.

Mr. Bush didn’t wait for the first question before assessing the past 12 months, saying that “2006 was a difficult year for our troops and the Iraqi people.”

He also said he supports a moderate coalition in Iraq, a new effort by the government to “marginalize the radical and extremists” in Iraq.

Most of the questions dealt with the war in Iraq, but the president also was asked about the pregnancy of Mary Cheney, the openly lesbian daughter of Vice President Dick Cheney.

“I know Mary, and I like her, and I know she is going to be a fine, loving mother,” Mr. Bush said.

Mr. Bush confronts a Democratic Congress as he begins the final two years of his presidency. Even so, he said he intends to “sprint hard to the finish.”

He said he saw an opening for compromise with the Democratic-controlled Congress that convenes on Jan. 4. He cited Social Security and immigration as two major areas in which common ground might be found. He also called for fresh efforts to reduce the United States’ dependence on foreign oil.

The president opened the question-and-answer session by conceding the obvious — that things haven’t gone well in Iraq, where the United States has lost more than 2,900 troops in almost four years of war without quelling the insurgency.

“The enemies of liberty … carried out a deliberate strategy to foment sectarian violence between Sunnis and Shia. And over the course of the year, they had success,” he said.

“Their success hurt our efforts to help the Iraqis rebuild their country. They set back reconciliation and kept Iraq’s unity government and our coalition from establishing security and stability throughout the country.”

Mr. Bush also explained a striking shift in position — his statement yesterday that the United States is neither winning nor losing in Iraq, contrasted with his insistence at a recent news conference that it was “absolutely winning.”

He said his earlier comments were meant to say “I believe that we’re going to win. I believe that. … My comments yesterday reflected the fact that we’re not succeeding nearly as fast as I had wanted.”

Looking ahead, Mr. Bush said a decision on whether to send more U.S. troops to Iraq rests on whether a specific, achievable mission can be defined. Top generals worry that a troop surge could strain the military overall and might be ineffective unless accompanied by political and economic changes in Iraq.

“There’s got to be a specific mission that can be accomplished with the addition of more troops before, you know, I agree on that strategy,” the president said.

“The opinion of my commanders is very important. They are bright, capable, smart people whose opinion matters to me a lot,” he said.

The Baker-Hamilton Commission said a quick buildup of troops could be helpful if the military commanders on the ground thought it would be effective in arresting what it called a “grave and deteriorating” situation in Iraq.

White House officials had earlier said the president intended to address the nation before year’s end to set out a revised plan for Iraq. That speech has been put off until after the holidays.

Mr. Bush was asked whether he was like President Lyndon Johnson, who had difficulty sleeping during the difficult days of the Vietnam War.

In response, the president said it was difficult knowing that “my decisions have caused young men and women to lose their lives.” And yet, he said, the United States must prevail in the global war on terror … and will.

It “is the calling of our generation,” he said.

Not for the first time in his presidency, Mr. Bush also expressed frustration that classified material continuously finds its way into print.

“Turns out you can never find the leaker,” he conceded.

He said it was possible an investigation is under way into the recent leak of a memo from National Security Adviser Stephen J. Hadley that was critical of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

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