- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The White House yesterday said 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 troops killed in the war.

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

Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander on the ground in Iraq, is expected to ask for a halt in troop withdrawals beyond those already scheduled to be completed by July, when U.S. force levels are scheduled to reach their pre-surge number of 130,000. White House press secretary Dana Perino yesterday called it “not unlikely” that Mr. Bush will accept such a request.

“The president thinks there is some merit in that recommendation … but he doesn’t have a full recommendation yet,” Mrs. Perino said.

Mrs. Perino emphasized that Mr. Bush and U.S. military leaders wants to ensure security gains, especially reduced violence in Baghdad and across the country, are not hampered by hastily lowering troop levels.

“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,” she said.

By July, the five combat brigades and two Marine battalions equaling about 30,000 troops — roughly the number of troops sent to Iraq a year ago as part of the president’s surge — will have been withdrawn. Iraqi politicians have achieved mixed results with the “breathing space” the surge was designed to give them.

Later in the day, Mr. Bush emerged from a meeting with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and marked the grim milestone of 4,000 dead in Iraq with a statement to reporters.

“Every life is precious in our sight,” Mr. Bush said.

“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, an outcome that will … will merit the sacrifice that civilian and military alike have made,” the president said.

The president learned yesterday 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.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, said the Iraq war has exacted “an excruciatingly high toll.”

“Our troops have served with honor and distinction,” Mr. Kennedy said, but asked, “when will the national nightmare the Iraq war has become finally end?”

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

“Iraq’s leaders,” Mr. Reid said, “refuse to take responsibility for their own country.”

He 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?”

Mr. Bush, who leaves Monday for NATO summit in Romania, will not make any announcements about troop levels until after Gen. Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker brief Congress on April 8 and 9.

Vice President Dick Cheney also signaled that the president will take a wait-and-see approach.

“It may be that we can make judgments about reductions down the road, and the president will make those when the time arrives. But I don’t think he’s likely to want to try to say now what the force level ought to be at the end of the year,” Mr. Cheney said, during an interview with ABC News in Ankara, Turkey.

The vice president also defended an offhand remark he made last week during his swing through the Middle East. Asked about public opposition to the war and a desire for U.S. troops to leave, Mr. Cheney said, “So?”

Mr. Cheney said yesterday that his comment was directed toward the idea of decision-making by opinion polls, and compared Mr. Bush’s hardest decisions on Iraq and other matters to President Ford’s pardon of President Nixon in 1974.

“Thirty years from now, it will be clear that [Mr. Bush] made the right decisions, and that the effort we mounted was the right one, and that if we had listened to the polls, we would have gotten it wrong,” Mr. Cheney said.

“If I wanted to be loved, I ought to be a TV correspondent, not a politician,” he added.

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