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President Bush makes a surprise visit to Iraq

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AL-ASAD AIR BASE, Iraq — President Bush, briefed by U.S. military commanders and Iraqi leaders, said Monday some American forces could be sent home if security across Iraq improves as it has in Anbar province, a former hotbed of Sunni insurgency.

But the president, flanked by Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, did not say how many troops could be withdrawn or how soon.

Despite intense pressure at home for cutbacks, Bush said decisions about troop levels "will be based on a calm assessment by our military commanders on the conditions on the ground — not a nervous reaction by Washington politicians to poll results in the media.

"In other words," the president told cheering troops, "when we begin to draw down troops from Iraq it will be from a position of strength and success — not from a position of fear and failure."

Bush traveled secretly from Washington to this dusty base, about 120 miles west of Baghdad.

Gates said the administration is looking ahead several months to assess whether security improvements across Iraq are sufficient to enable Bush to start withdrawing troops. He provided no details on Bush's thinking about the timing and scope of any reductions.

Bush met with Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, and U.S. ambassador to Baghdad Ryan Crocker, who are testifying to Congress next week assessing the president's troop buildup.

"Gen. Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker tell me if the kind of success we're now seeing continues, it will be possible to maintain the same level of security with fewer American forces," Bush said.

Bush stood in front of two Humvees near a dusty tarmac of this desert outpost in western Iraq, about 120 miles west of Baghdad, to share his latest views about the war. He urged Congress to wait until they hear testimony from Crocker and Petraeus next week and see a White House progress report due by Sept. 15 before judging the result of his decision to send an extra 30,000 troops to Iraq.

"I urge members of both parties in Congress to listen to what they have to say," he said. "We shouldn't jump to conclusions until the general and the ambassador report."

Bush talked here with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and other top government officials from Baghdad. He urged the government to respond to progress in Anbar where violence has abated after Sunni tribal leaders and former insurgents teamed up with U.S. troops to hunt down al-Qaida and other extremists.

He also met with Sunni tribal sheiks and members of Anbar's governing body.

To a large degree, the setting was the message: Bringing al-Maliki, a Shiite, to the heart of mostly Sunni Anbar province was intended to show the administration's war critics that the beleaguered Iraqi leader is capable of reaching out to Sunnis, who ran the country for years under Saddam Hussein.

Even Republicans are pressuring Bush on troop cuts. Republican Sen. John Warner surprised the White House by declaring over the summer congressional break that he wants some U.S. troops to start coming home from Iraq by Christmas. He said he may support Democratic legislation ordering withdrawals if Bush refuses to set a return timetable soon.

The temperature topped 110 degrees as Bush stepped off Air Force One. The president stopped at a small building where a Marine Cobra pilot briefed him about the positives and negatives of current troop rotations. He told the president that troops were not getting enough time at home and did not have enough time for training.

"Morale?" asked Bush. "How's morale?"

"Very high sir," the pilot, Capt. Lee Hemming, said.

Hadley said the trip was conceived about six weeks ago when top White House advisers began discussing Bush's role as Congress returns to Washington and debate over the war heats up. It was decided that progress in Anbar made it the perfect place to showcase the administration's strategy.

There has been a drop in violence in Anbar, where Sunni tribal leaders and former insurgents have teamed up with U.S. troops to hunt down al-Qaida and other extremists.

Anticipating criticism that Bush's trip was a media event to buttress support for his war strategy, the White House was ready to push back.

"There are some people who might try to deride this trip as a photo opportunity," White House deputy press secretary Dana Perino said. "We wholeheartedly disagree."

Hadley said Bush wanted to hear personally from commanders and from al-Maliki himself.

"There is no substitute for sitting down, looking him in the eye, and having a conversation with him," Hadley said. "The president felt this is something he had to do in order to put himself in a position to make some important decisions."

Indications are that the president intends to stick with his current approach — at least into 2008 — despite pressure from the Democratic-led Congress and some prominent Republicans. Right now, the White House is working to keep Republican members of Congress in the president's fold to prevent Democrats from amassing the strength to slash war funds or mandate immediate troop withdrawals.

The United States cannot sustain the troop buildup indefinitely. And with Democrats calling for withdrawals and a rising U.S. death toll that has topped 3,700, the president is hardpressed to give al-Maliki's government much more time to find a political solution to the fighting.

Bush stopped in Iraq ahead of his visit to Australia for an economic summit with Asia-Pacific leaders. The trip was a closely held secret for obvious security reasons, although there was speculation about such a visit after Laura Bush said late last month that she was staying home to tend to a pinched nerve in her neck.

The president, who also went to Iraq at Thanksgiving 2003 and in June 2006, was scheduled to leave for Australia on Monday. But he quietly slipped out a side door of the White House on Sunday evening and was driven to Andrews Air Force Base to board Air Force One.

Critics of the war argue that while the troop buildup may have tamped down violence, the Iraqis are making almost no headway toward political reconciliation. They cite a handful of gloomy progress reports trickling out of Washington that show some success in curbing violence, but little progress toward political power-sharing agreements.

There are now 162,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, including 30,000 that arrived since February as part of Bush's revised strategy to provide security so Iraqi leaders could build a unity government.