- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 10, 2007

10:45 p.m.

President Bush tonight admitted that he made a mistake by failing to increase troops in Iraq last year and committed to boosting more than 21,000 troops, setting up a battle with the congressional Democrats, who vowed to fight the new war strategy.

In rejecting the Iraq Study Group’s call to withdraw most combat troops within 15 months, the president will push the U.S. military presence in Iraq to its highest level in more than a year. His plan, revealed last night in a prime-time address to the nation, came with no timetable, and senior administration officials said yesterday that the so-called “surge” in troops has no set end.

But the president said the U.S. commitment to help Iraqis secure the war-torn nation is finite. In the 20-minute speech, the president demanded swift action by the fledgling government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who has refused to crack down on the Shi’ite militias responsible for the recent spike in sectarian violence.

“I have made it clear to the prime minister and Iraq’s other leaders that America’s commitment is not open-ended. If the Iraqi government does not follow through on its promises, it will lose the support of the American people — and it will lose the support of the Iraqi people. Now is the time to act. The prime minister understands this,” he said.

The new strategy will increase U.S. troops in Iraq to about 153,500 at an extra cost of $5.6 billion through the rest of this fiscal year.

The first of five brigades will arrive by Monday; the next, a month later, with the rest coming in monthly increments. The bulk of the “new” troops will be soldiers and Marines already scheduled to go to Iraq, but whose deployments will be extended.

Although he has previously acknowledged making mistakes in Iraq, Mr. Bush yesterday said he was wrong both in his decision-making and in his assumptions.

“Where mistakes have been made, the responsibility rests with me,” he said. “The situation in Iraq is unacceptable to the American people — and it is unacceptable to me.”

But by pushing for an escalation, Mr. Bush runs smack into Democrats, the new majority party in Congress, who say they reflect American voters’ desire to begin bringing troops back home.

“This is the third time we are going down this path. Two times this has not worked,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California. “Why are they doing this now? That question remains.”

The president called top Democrats and Republicans to the White House hours before yesterday’s speech to brief them. The late hour drew scorn from Democrats, who said that didn’t fit with Mr. Bush’s postelection promise to consult them more.

“The president’s practicing his speech right now,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat. “We had a conversation today that has no impact on what he’s going to say.”

Some Republican lawmakers said they also are skeptical that a surge in troops can achieve much.

“The generals who have served there do not believe additional troops alone will help,” said Sen George V. Voinovich, Ohio Republican, who said he also lacks faith in Mr. al-Maliki “to make the hard choices necessary to bring about a political solution.”

But Mr. Bush said that fighting in Iraq makes the United States safer and that his plan will bring the troops home faster.

“If we increase our support at this crucial moment and help the Iraqis break the current cycle of violence, we can hasten the day our troops begin coming home,” he said.

The president promised lawmakers that if they “have improvements that can be made, we will make them,” and tapped Sen. Joe Lieberman, Connecticut independent, to form a new bipartisan working group to improve relations between the administration and Congress on the war on terror.

But he also challenged critics to prove how their alternatives would “be more likely to succeed.”

The new strategy sets up a fierce conflict on Capitol Hill, one that could create a constitutional issue over presidential war powers.

Some Democrats, led by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, want to rescind the resolution authorizing the president to use force in Iraq. But Democratic leaders prefer a less bruising strategy, calling for a nonbinding resolution that would signal Congress’ opposition to the surge in troops.

The president said that despite two previous shifts in strategy that failed, his new plan takes into account the source of the violence, and sets “benchmarks” for Iraqis to meet.

Iraqis will take the lead in battling sectarian violence as Americans step back into a support role, and the young government will deploy three additional Iraqi army brigades up to 12,000 soldiers in and around Baghdad, where the administration says 80 percent of the violence occurs.

“Only the Iraqis can end the sectarian violence and secure their people. And their government has put forward an aggressive plan to do it,” he said.

After nearly four years of war, the president redefined what victory in Iraq will look like.

“Victory will not look like the ones our fathers and grandfathers achieved. There will be no surrender ceremony on the deck of a battleship,” he said, alluding to the end of World War II. “A democratic Iraq will not be perfect. But it will be a country that fights terrorists instead of harboring them and it will help bring a future of peace and security for our children and grandchildren.”

In documents supporting the speech, the White House said Mr. Bush had assumed that other governments would back Iraq’s new leaders. But Iraq’s neighbors “remain wary of throwing their full support” behind Mr. al-Maliki’s government. And the White House acknowledged that the U.S.-led coalition has lost the confidence of the Iraqi people, who are “increasingly disillusioned.”

Mr. Bush’s plans call for more than 17,000 U.S. soldiers to be deployed to Baghdad to handle sectarian violence. Also, 4,000 Marines will be sent to the Anbar province, where al Qaeda is the problem. In addition, the president said he has “recently ordered the deployment of an additional carrier strike group to the region.”

He said he was accepting the Iraq Study Group’s recommendation to embed U.S. troops with Iraqi units to help with on-the-job training.

But he didn’t accept the panel’s suggestion that the U.S. begin direct talks with Iran and Syria and pledged instead to “interrupt the flow of support from Iran and Syria,” which he said is aiding attacks on U.S. troops.

He also acknowledged the failures of several previous efforts to secure Baghdad but explained why he thought this effort would be different.

“Our past efforts to secure Baghdad failed for two principal reasons: There were not enough Iraqi and American troops to secure neighborhoods that had been cleared of terrorists and insurgents,” the president said. “And there were too many restrictions on the troops we did have.”

He said American commanders have reviewed the Iraqi plan “to ensure that it addressed these mistakes.”

“This time, we will have the force levels we need to hold the areas that have been cleared,” he said, adding that Mr. Maliki has promised to give his commanders enough authority, including going after sectarian militias.

Right now, Iraq’s military is in control in three of the nation’s provinces, but Mr. Bush said the government has committed to taking control in all 18 provinces by November.

The president said the new plan relies on a strategy the Iraqis drew up themselves and presented to the president when he met Mr. al-Maliki in Jordan after Thanksgiving.

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