Al Asad Air Base, Iraq -- President Bush made an unannounced visit to Iraq yesterday and held out the possibility that some U.S. troops might be withdrawn from the country if security gains made in one part of the country can be spread to others.
However, the president offered no timetable on a withdrawal and did not indicate how many troops might be involved. And he insisted that decisions on force levels should not be driven by "a nervous reaction by Washington politicians or poll results."
Bush, who had been expected to leave Washington yesterday for a gathering of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation in Australia, instead flew in secrecy to this air base in Anbar province Sunday night to meet with top U.S. and Iraqi officials, including Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, and with American troops. He later flew on to Australia.
The six-hour visit gave Bush, who was joined by Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, a high-profile opportunity to argue that conditions in Iraq are improving. It came just ahead of several weeks when Congress will be receiving long-awaited reports on Iraq and intensively debating whether to push for a timetable on troop withdrawals.
The president hailed what U.S. officials say is the improving security situation in Anbar, once one of the most violent regions in Iraq. He praised Sunni tribal leaders in the province who are fighting alongside U.S. forces against al-Qaida in Iraq.
"General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker tell me if the kind of success we are now seeing continues, it will be possible to maintain the same level of security with fewer American forces," Bush said, referring to the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, and U.S. Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker.
The two officials are scheduled to report to Congress next week on the administration's "surge" strategy of adding 28,500 additional troops to Iraq this year and are expected to argue that the changes in Anbar are evidence the strategy is working.
Outside the administration, many diplomats, Iraqi officials and other observers are more skeptical. They note that violence in Anbar is down in large part because militants have simply moved to other parts of the country, where violence has increased sharply this year.
Iraqi government leaders also worry that while Sunni tribes might fight alongside U.S. forces now, they eventually will turn against Iraq's central, Shiite-dominated government.
U.S. officials said they had brought al-Maliki and the other Iraqi leaders to Anbar in part to show the Sunni tribes the central government supports them.
The Bush administration also has been pushing al-Maliki's government to pass legislation that the Americans hope will encourage political reconciliation in Iraq, such as measures to fairly divide up the country's oil revenues among sectarian groups.
For several weeks, senior Bush administration officials have said they expect Petraeus to say that the U.S. troop presence in Anbar can be reduced, though that might not mean pulling those soldiers out of Iraq entirely.
Officials traveling with Bush noted that his statement about overall troop reductions was conditioned on security improving in Iraq. And later, speaking before a room with several hundred cheering troops, Bush said any drawdown would not be driven by politics.
"Those decisions will be made by calm assessments of military commanders, not a nervous reaction by Washington politicians or poll results in the media," he said. "When we begin to draw down from Iraq, it will be from a position of strength and success - not from a position of fear and failure."
Just before meeting with the Sunni tribal leaders, Bush emphasized that the United States would not leave Iraq anytime soon.
"I am going to reassure them that America does not abandon our friends, and America will not abandon the Iraqi people," Bush said, flanked by Gates and Rice. "That is the message all three of us bring. The secretaries and I have come here today to see with our own eyes the remarkable changes that are taking place in Anbar province."
Last year, 356 American troops were killed in Anbar, according to the Web site www.icasualties.org., 43 percent of the U.S. fatalities in Iraq. This year 146 Americans have been killed, 20 percent of the total in Iraq.
Defense officials described the gathering of U.S. officials at this air base about 120 miles northwest of Baghdad as a meeting of Bush's war council.
"This is the last big gathering of the president's top military advisers and Iraqi leadership before the president decides on the way forward," said Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell.
The American delegation met with al-Maliki and five other Iraqi leaders representing the main sectarian groups, including President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd.
Also in Iraq, al-Maliki said that his government was making progress on the political front and had submitted to parliament legislation that would ease restrictions on members of Saddam Hussein's ousted regime.
The prime minister said leaders of Iraq's main Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish factions had signed off on the bill, and he expected little opposition when lawmakers reconvene today after a month's vacation.
Although he acknowledged that conditions could be better, he expressed confidence that "positive developments" in Iraq would be reflected in the report Crocker and Petraeus present to Congress next week.
Julian E. Barnes writes for the Los Angeles Times.