Bush concedes Iraq 'conditions are bad'

By Johanna Neuman

Los Angeles Times

December 21, 2006

WASHINGTON — President Bush, acknowledging that the United States is not winning the war in Iraq, today called for an increase in the size of the U.S. military, particularly the Army and Marines.

Agreeing that 2006 was "a difficult year," Bush said insurgents adopted a "deliberate strategy to foment" dissension between Sunnis and Shia. The strategy worked, he said, setting back U.S. and Iraqi plans for reconciliation.

"I believe we're going to win and if didn't believe that, I wouldn't have our troops there," Bush said during a news conference. "But we're not succeeding nearly as fast as I wanted. Conditions are bad, particularly in Baghdad."

Trying to bolster U.S. support, Bush said: "This is a tough task but they can't run us out of the Middle East...We're going to develop a strategy that helps Iraqis."

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, in Iraq to survey the situation, will be making recommendations on a future course "as quickly as possible," Bush said.

Amid reports that the White House favored sending a surge of additional troops while the Pentagon does not, Bush said he had not yet made a decision but is "listening to ideas from every quarter."

He cautioned that if more troops are sent, "there needs to be a specific mission" and help for the Iraqis to step up their role. "It's their responsibility...to do the hard work necessary to secure Baghdad."

Gates will bring a fresh perspective and offer "an important voice in the Iraq strategy review," Bush said

Asked if former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had erred in slimming down the military, Bush defended the former Pentagon chief, endorsing the idea of a "lighter agile army that can move quickly to meet the threats of 21st century." But he said that policy doesn't preclude increasing the size of the Army and the Marines.

"We're going to be in a long struggle against radicals and extremists," he said. "We have an obligation to ensure our military has the capacity to sustain this war over the long haul."

Insisting that "victory in Iraq is achievable," Bush conceded that "hasn't happened as quickly as possible" and agreed that the recent "unspeakable sectarian violence" had upset the American public.

"This is a tough time for Americans," he said. "They want to see success."

But the president insisted that "a lot of Americans understand the consequences of retreat," which he said would "embolden radicals, dash the hopes of millions who want to be free and provide safe haven from which to plot and plan attacks."

Asked if he, like Lyndon Johnson during the Vietnam War, was losing sleep over developments on the battlefield, Bush said "the most painful aspect" of his job is knowing that "good men and women" have been killed in combat.

"I read about it every night," he said. "My heart breaks."

But the president said that when he reaches out to families who have lost sons and husbands to the war in Iraq, "most people have asked me to do one thing -- make sure they didn't die in vain."

Pressed on what went wrong in Iraq, Bush called sectarian violence "a very troubling aspect of trying to help the Iraqi government succeed." He said in developing a new strategy, "a major consideration of our planners is how to deal with that, how to help the Iraqis deal with that ...It's mean, it's deadly and we've got to help the Iraqis deal with it."

He defended his decision to go to war in Iraq, saying "it's the right decision for America to stay engaged," and that "the next president will have the same charge -- to deal with terrorists so they don't hurt us and to help young democracies."

On other issues, Bush hailed the economy, saying seven million new jobs have been created since August 2003 and urged reporters during the holiday season to "go shopping more."

Asked about the pregnancy of Mary Cheney, the openly gay daughter of Vice President Dick Cheney, Bush called the news that Mary Cheney and her partner planned to raise the child a "personal matter for the vice president and his family." Bush said, "I know Mary, I like her, I know she's going to be a fine loving mother."

As for his last two years in office, Bush said he planned to "sprint to the finish." Noting that he is reading about George Washington, Bush said he figured that "if they're still debating number one," it will be a while before history accurately reflects the 43rd president's decisions.