Bush raises possibility of troop cuts in Iraq

U.S. President George W. Bush raised the issue of troop cuts in Iraq following a surprise visit to that country Monday, saying he can now 'speculate on the hypothetical.'

'You are denying al-Qaeda a safe haven'

U.S. President George W. Bush raised the issue of troop cuts in Iraq following a surprise visit to that country on Monday, saying the security situation has progressed to where he can "speculate on the hypothetical."

Bush, accompanied by his war cabinet and a small group of reporters, arrived at Al-Asad air base in Anbar province Monday for a meeting with top commanders. He left on Air Force One several hours later for Australia, where he'll attend this week's APEC summit.

On board the flight to Sydney, Bush spoke to reporters about possible troop withdrawals.

"The main factor that will affect my decision on troop levels is: can we succeed," the president said.

"If you look at my comments over the past eight months, it's gone from a security situation in the sense that we're either going to get out and there will be chaos, or more troops. Now the situation has changed where I'm able to speculate on the hypothetical."

Bush said Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Iraq, and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker, told him, "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."

Next week, Petraeus and Crocker are scheduled to testify before Congress about the situation in Iraq.

Bush spoke to American troops when he arrived at the dusty air force base, vowing not to make any rash decisions about withdrawing American soldiers from the war-torn country.

"Those decisions will be based on a calm assessment by military commanders on the conditions on the ground, not nervous reaction by Washington politicians to poll results in the media," he told cheering soldiers, who occasionally shouted "hooah."

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

Bushflew 12 hours to Iraq after leaving Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland on Sunday night.

Bush's Iraqi trip, his first since 2006,comesas ashowdown is brewing in the U.S. Congress, where Democrats have been calling for a withdrawal of U.S. troops.

Assessment important

Petraeus and Crocker's assessment of the conflict, along with a progress report the White House must give legislators by Sept. 15, are expected to determine the next chapter of the war, which has seen more than 3,700 American soldiers killed since the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003.

There are currently 162,000 U.S. soldiers in Iraq. About 30,000 of them arrived in January in a troop build-up that Bush has been forced to defend.

Bush stressed Monday that troops are making a difference, especially in Anbar, about 190 kilometres west of Baghdad.

"It was once written off as lost. It's now one of the safest places in Iraq because of your hard work," Bush said.

"Because of your bravery and sacrifice, you are denying al-Qaeda a safe haven from which to plot and plan and carry out attacks on the United States of America."

Keeping U.S. safe

Bush repeatedly noted how the work in Iraq keeps the United States safe from attacks, like the Sept. 11, 2001attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C.

"Everyday you're doing work on the sands of Anbar that is making it safer in the streets of America," he told the troops.

"That's important because a free Iraq, an Iraq that's an ally these extremists and murderers, will be a major defeat for the terrorists."

Bush, joined in Iraq by Defence Secretary Robert Gates, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and othersfromthe U.S. administration, met with Iraq's top political leaders, including Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and President Jalal Talabani.

WhenBush met with the two at the Anbar airbase, he shook al-Maliki's hand and gave Talabani a customary Middle East greeting of threekisses on the cheek.

Bush's trip only lasted about six hours and was confined to the airbase, which was once part of the military operations of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein.

Trip defended

White House officials insisted the trip was not merely for show.

"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."

National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley said Bush went to discuss the situation in Iraq personally with U.S. military commanders stationed in Iraq and Iraqi leaders like al-Maliki.

"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."

Following the Iraq trip, Bush was scheduled to fly to Australia for economic summit with Asia-Pacific leaders.

With files from the Associated Press