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Bush readies for summit on his Iraq strategy

Sunday, June 11, 2006

WASHINGTON -- President Bush is walking a fine line with a high-profile, two-day Camp David summit on Iraq.

The sessions Monday and Tuesday are meant to show Americans anxious about the open-ended U.S. military presence in Iraq that progress is being made.

White House officials played down expectations of troop-cutback formulas or other dramatic announcements from the meetings. Even Bush said Camp David was picked more for its spotty cell-phone service and the lack of other usual West Wing distractions.

The re-evaluation of the administration's Iraq policy starts with a long day of meetings between Bush and his national security team and the military commanders in the field in Iraq, continues with a luncheon attended by outside experts and ends with dinner Monday night.

On Tuesday, the sessions conclude with a videoconference between Bush's Cabinet and top ministers in Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's new government.

Among the most immediate concerns is how to buttress security operations in and around Baghdad. That could involve short-term troop increases.

Bush asked his Cabinet to move quickly once al-Maliki's government was completed to establish relationships with Iraq's ministers.

The idea is to offer detailed assistance with everything from securing oil fields and pipelines, turning the lights on more reliably in Baghdad and ridding Iraqi security forces of militias that are fueling sectarian tensions.

Those are among the priorities al-Maliki has named for his administration. They have proved difficult achievements even more than three years after U.S.-led forces ousted the former government of Saddam Hussein.

Al-Maliki also has said that Iraqi forces will be capable of controlling security in all of Iraq within 18 months. Bush said last week that the Camp David meetings will seek to assess whether that claim is realistic.

The sessions were already on the schedule before Wednesday's killing of terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in a U.S. airstrike and the Iraqi parliament's approval Thursday of three key security ministers. White House officials said the meetings would be conducted against the backdrop of how both developments may have changed things.

"The difficult and necessary mission in Iraq continues," Bush said.

With only a third of Americans supporting Bush's handling of Iraq, according to AP-Ipsos polling in early June before al-Zarqawi's death, and some Democrats calling for U.S. troops to come home by the end of the year, Bush is under pressure to show progress.

"Everybody views the completion of a truly unity government as a moment of opportunity," White House counselor Dan Bartlett said. "Everybody also recognizes that there's a window there in which it's important for them to show success. And that is exactly why the meeting is taking place now -- to make sure we're doing everything we can to ensure success."

On Saturday, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid -- speaking for Democrats in the party's weekly radio address -- called on Bush to emerge from the meetings with a concrete plan for making 2006 "a year of significant transition" in Iraq.

"Our troops and the American people have been exceedingly patient as previous mileposts in Iraq have passed without progress. The president is asking too much if he expects us to do it again," said Reid, D-Nev. "We need more than platitudes next week."

Bush and his aides said no troop-withdrawal plan was in the offing.

"This is not a meeting about drawdowns," Bartlett said. "It's a meeting about how can we best help the Iraqis help secure their country."

The president has been at Camp David since Thursday, conferring there Friday with an Iraq ally, Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen, and preparing with aides for the meetings.

Bush was spending Sunday night at the White House for a long-planned social engagement, before returning to the retreat Monday.


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