- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 21, 2006

President Bush yesterday conceded that U.S. forces were inadequately prepared to handle sectarian violence that broke out in Iraq after the fall of Baghdad, but said any increase in American troops to establish security there must be tied to a specific mission “that can be accomplished.”

The president also acknowledged that 2006 “was a difficult year for our troops and the Iraqi people” and that “the enemies of liberty … carried out a deliberate strategy to foment sectarian violence.”

During an hourlong press conference in which Mr. Bush was both reflective and, at times, gloomy, the president called the war in Iraq “the beginning of a conflict between competing ideologies” and urged Congress to put aside partisanship for the long-term protection of the American people.

“I believe the next president, whoever the person is, will have the same charge, the same obligations to deal with terrorists so they don’t hurt us and to help young democracies survive the threats of radicalism and extremism,” the president said in the Indian Treaty Room of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building.

Mr. Bush’s year-end press conference came as Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates made his first visit to Iraq since being sworn in Monday. The president has asked his new Pentagon chief to report to him as quickly as possible on long-term plans to enlarge the size of the Army and Marine Corps, an idea Mr. Bush said he supports.

Meanwhile yesterday, the Pentagon planned to ask the White House for $99.7 billion to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which would push the total cost to taxpayers to more than $500 billion, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service.

Although Mr. Bush said he supports increasing the Army and Marines, he said he has not decided whether to add U.S. troops in Iraq in hopes of controlling sectarian violence that has made this year one of the most deadly of the nearly four-year war.

“We’re looking at all options, and one of those options, of course, is increasing more troops. But in order to do so, there must be a specific mission that can be accomplished with more troops,” he said.

Democrats wasted little time in condemning the president’s comments.

“The president gave no indication in his press conference today that he is willing to make the changes needed to reverse the disastrous situation in Iraq,” House Speaker-elect Nancy Pelosi said. “Unless there is a fundamental change in policy and in the mission of our troops in support of that policy, events in Iraq are unlikely to improve.”

Said incoming Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid: “Unfortunately, it is troubling to see that he still does not understand the need for urgent change in Iraq. … Democrats and the bipartisan Iraq Study Group have both laid down a road map for the president to begin the withdrawal of American troops from the civil war in Iraq. It is now up to the president to follow that course.”

Mr. Bush said he is still mulling his options as he prepares to announce early next month a change in strategy for the war in Iraq and is compiling recommendations from a slew of sources, including the bipartisan panel led by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III and former Democratic Rep. Lee H. Hamilton of Indiana, which called for withdrawal of combat troops by early 2008.

Mr. Bush again expressed optimism that the United States can “win” in Iraq.

“Victory in Iraq is achievable. It hasn’t happened nearly as quickly as I hoped it would have. … But I also don’t believe most Americans want us just to get out now. A lot of Americans understand the consequences of retreat,” he said.

But the president was somber when asked about his legacy, breaking from his normal assertion that history will judge him well.

“It’s going to take awhile for people to … determine whether or not the decisions made during the eight years I was president have affected history in a positive way,” he said.

Mr. Bush also looked ahead to the long-term needs of the military, saying that although he still supports a light, agile Army, “that doesn’t necessarily preclude increasing end strength for the Army and the Marines.”

“The reason why I’m inclined to believe this is a good idea is because I understand that we’re going to be in a long struggle against radicals and extremists, and we must make sure that our military has the capability to stay in the fight for a long period of time,” he said.

That move is a break with former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld’s push to build a lighter, more agile military. Mr. Rumsfeld took office under orders from Mr. Bush to transform the military for 21st-century threats, and the former secretary first moved to cut two divisions, from 10 to eight, a plan shelved after the September 11 attacks.

As the war on terrorism ground on, critics emerged again to say the Army had grown too small to fight two wars and keep other global commitments. Mr. Rumsfeld responded by authorizing 30,000 more soldiers, but refused to recommend it be put into law as “end strength.”

He also moved to make the Army more agile by breaking down the division organization into combat brigade teams, which trained and deployed with their own support groups instead of joining up with them before deployment.

• Rowan Scarborough contributed to this report.

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