- The Washington Times - Monday, March 24, 2008

The White House today said that President Bush will most likely pause troop withdrawals from Iraq after the U.S. presence there reaches pre-surge levels this summer, as the president marked the milestone of more than 4,000 soldiers killed in the war.

Every life is precious in our sight, Mr. Bush said, in a statement to reporters at the State Department after meeting with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

I have vowed in the past and I will vow so long as I am president to make sure that those lives were not lost in vain, that in fact there is, you know, a outcome that will merit the sacrifice that civilian and military alike have made, the president said.

Mr. Bush spoke about troop levels with his top general and ambassador in Iraq this morning for two hours by secure White House video teleconference, and will meet with Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon Wednesday.

White House press secretary Dana Perino did not rule out the possibility that Mr. Bush will make a decision on troop levels before he leaves next Monday for a week-long trip to Eastern Europe.

Mrs. Perino also said it is not unlikely that Mr. Bush will accept a recommendation to keep about 130,000 U.S. troops in Iraq beyond July.

The president thinks there is some merit in that recommendation; but he doesnt have a full recommendation yet, Mrs. Perino said.

But Mr. Bush will not make any announcements until after Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker brief Congress on April 8 and 9.

The president learned this morning that the number of U.S. dead in Iraq had passed the 4,000 threshold, after four soldiers were killed late last night by a roadside bomb while on patrol in Baghdad.

It was a sober moment, Mrs. Perino said.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, said the milestone was the latest reminder that we still owe our nations bravest men and women a strategy to redeploy them from an endless civil war and make America more secure.

Iraqs leaders, Mr. Reid said, refuse to take responsibility for their own country.

The Democratic leader asked Mr. Bush to query Gen. Petraeus on the very question the military commander asked during the invasion of Iraq: Tell me how this ends?

By July, the five combat brigades and two Marine battalions equaling about 30,000 troops; roughly equal to the number of troops sent to Iraq a year ago as part of the presidents surge; will have been withdrawn.

The surge has accomplished solid results on the security side, reducing violence significantly in Baghdad and around the country. Iraqi politicians, however, have achieved mixed results with the breathing space the surge was designed to give them.

However, pressure on the president for a full withdrawal has eased as violence has decreased and other issues, such as the economy and presidential primaries, have taken center stage.

Mrs. Perino said the president will likely follow the advice of military commanders such as Gen. Petraeus to wait and see the effect of reducing the U.S. footprint.

What’s going to be critically important is to make sure that we don’t move too quickly in pulling more troops out and erase those gains, Mrs. Perino said. We have to make sure that the Iraqis can take care of it themselves. Largely, they are, in many of the areas, but they’ve got a long way to go in others.

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