Bush, aides consider strategy after troop increase in Iraq

Published May 27, 2007

WASHINGTON - President Bush and his top aides have signaled in recent days that they are beginning to look more closely at a "postsurge" strategy that would involve a smaller U.S. troop presence in Iraq and a mission focused on fighting al-Qaida and training the Iraqi army.

Even as the final installment of the nearly 30, 000 additional U.S. troops has yet to arrive in Iraq, the officials are talking publicly and privately about how U.S. strategy might change if the additional forces are able to stem sectarian violence in Baghdad.

"I would like to see us in a different configuration at some point in time in Iraq, " Bush said at a news conference Thursday. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Peter Pace offered similar comments that day, telling reporters that military leaders would be reviewing a new approach as they await a September report by Gen. David Petraeus on the progress made by the additional troops.

Gates described a "transition" toward a role that would "train, equip, continue to go after al-Qaida and provide support. ... That kind of a role clearly would involve fewer forces than we have now, and forces with a different mission."

The president met last week with his senior advisers to discuss Iraq and was not focused on withdrawing troops, according to administration officials. But the recent statements may reflect a recognition in the administration that time is running short, both in the ability of the Iraqi government to achieve political reconciliation and in Congress' patience for a major U.S. combat presence. Privately, administration officials acknowledge that they are beginning to consider scenarios for what happens after the additional troops are in place.

Although Bush last week forced Congress to agree to fund the next three months of the war with no time lines for withdrawal, leading Republicans are saying that they expect a new strategy this fall, after the Petraeus report.

In one of his strongest statements to date, Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, a key administration ally, told reporters Friday that "the handwriting is on the wall that we are going in a different direction in the fall, and I expect the president to lead it."

"I think he himself has certainly indicated he's not happy with where we are, " he added.

Administration officials said they are beginning to discuss future troop levels, but they said no decisions have been made.