By Fred W. Baker III
American Forces Press Service
Sept. 3, 2007 - President Bush said here today that if reported successes continue in Iraq it will eventually be possible to maintain the same level of security with fewer troops. Flanked by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the president spoke to reporters for a few minutes following meetings with top military and political leaders in the country. He stopped short of stating when troop sizes could be drawn down in the region.
"General (David H.) Petraeus and Ambassador (Ryan C.) 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 Americans," the president said.
In a surprise visit here, President Bush assembled his "war council" at this remote air base in what was most likely the group's last meeting before the president makes his decision on next steps for U.S. involvement in the war.
Gates, Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Navy Adm. William Fallon, commander of U.S. Central Command, Petraeus, commander of Multinational Force Iraq, Rice, and Crocker all met with top Iraqi political leaders as well as Anbar provincial tribal leaders.
Bush said he was encouraged by the update he received today from Petraeus and Crocker and touted recent progress especially in the Anbar province.
"I was pleased with what I heard," the president said. "The strategy we put in place earlier this year was designed to help the Iraqis improve their security so that political and economic progress could follow. And that is exactly the effect it is having in places like Anbar.
Bush said continuing this progress is vital to meeting the strategic interests of our nation.
"We can't take this progress for granted. Here in Anbar and across Iraq, al Qaeda and other enemies of freedom will continue to try to kill the innocent in order to impose their dark ideology," Bush said.
Bush later met with tribal leaders from Anbar province, sending a message of support for the successes in the region that have brought heralded by top leaders as key to a secure, stable Iraq.
"I am going to reassure them that America does not abandon our friends. And America will not abandon the Iraqi people. That's the message all three of us bring," Bush said.
Bush said he was told last summer that the region was lost and could be recovered. But that the locals rejected the ideals of the al Qaeda extremists and eventually sided with coalition forces to drive out the insurgents.
"They rejected the dark vision of al Qaeda. They didn't like the idea of murderers deciding their fate," the president said. "They organized themselves. They took on the terrorists and they asked for our help."
In response to what officials are calling a tribal "awakening," military officials sent 4,000 more U.S. Marines to help reinforce the areas cleared of al Qaeda and secure the gains the tribes were worried about holding.
"Together with the brave Iraqis we have gone into al Qaeda strongholds and have driven them out," Bush said.
As a result, the level of violence is down, police are more in control and normal life is returning, Bush said.
"The people of this province are seeing that standing up to the extremists is the path to a better life. That success is possible," Bush said.
Bush said that the Anbar province represents the future of Iraq.