Bush: Listen to Generals on Troop Levels

CRAWFORD, Texas (AP) — President Bush declined Saturday to repeat promises made by others in his administration that more U.S. troops will return home from Iraq than scheduled before he leaves office.

Decisions about troop cuts beyond those now planned through July would be based on generals' recommendations, the president said.

"There is going to be enormous speculation," he said in a joint appearance at his ranch with Denmark's prime minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen. But, Bush said, "My sole criteria is that whatever we do, it ought to be in the context of success."

He did suggest strongly that Iraq's provincial elections in October will require bringing more troops home to wait until after the voting.

"I think our generals ought to be concerned about making sure there's enough of a presence so that the provincial elections can be carried out in such a way that democracy advances," he said.

A senior administration official had told reporters during a briefing Friday at the White House, "I fully expect there to be more reductions this year — and so does the president."

Troop withdrawals are scheduled to bring the U.S. force presence in Iraq down to 15 brigades by July, for a troop total of about 140,000.

The top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, makes his next required report to Bush in early April. He is expected to recommend the president wait for about four weeks to six weeks after the end of that round of cuts before deciding upon more, in order to assess the impact on the insurgency, Iraqi government's readiness and security gains. That would put off any new decision about cuts until August or September at the earliest, and Bush's remarks seemed to suggest it would come even later.

A chief topic of the talks between Bush and Fogh Rasmussen was NATO's increasingly tough fight in Afghanistan against militants.

The U.S., so far unsuccessfully, has pressed for some NATO members to send more troops to Afghanistan and drop military restrictions that the U.S. says hampers the effort. Bush and Fogh Rasmussen made the case again.

"We expect people to ... carry a heavy burden," Bush said.

The president sought to strike a balance between berating allies and meeting an urgent goal. "I understand that there's certain political considerations on certain countries," he said. But Bush said his message during a NATO summit in Romania in early April will be to both thank contributing nations and "encourage people to contribute more."

Added the prime minister: "We need more troops in Afghanistan."

All 26 NATO nations have troops serving with the mission. The fighting in Afghanistan is at its most intense since the Taliban government was driven from power by U.S. forces in 2001.

But those in the southern front lines — mainly Canada, Britain, the U.S. and the Netherlands — are irked that others countries such as Germany, Italy, France and Spain restrict their forces to the relatively peaceful north and west. Canada has threatened to pull out its combat troops from the south if other NATO members do not come through.

A senior administration official said Friday that while there should be no expectation of "a surge of NATO" to come out of the Romania summit, there are likely to be "announcements that will be helpful." The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to more candidly describe White House thinking, did not elaborate.

There are increasing signs that France, under the new leadership of President Nicolas Sarkozy, appears ready to answer the call. The White House hopes that such a decision would encourage similar ones from other countries, or at least keep Canada from leaving.

The United States has 29,000 troops in Afghanistan, both as part of the NATO mission and in its own terror-fighting and training efforts, and is sending an additional 3,200 Marines in April. Denmark has about 600 Danish troops in the south.

Bush declined to criticize Iraq's government for inviting Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to Baghdad. The trip Sunday will be the first ever to Iraq by an Iranian leader. Bush suggested it was normal for neighbors to visit.

But he did seize on mention of the subject to offer his own pointed message to Tehran: "Stop exporting terror."

With U.S. hostility toward Iran growing over its suspected nuclear weapons program, Bush said, "The international community is serious about continuing to isolate Iran until they come clean about their nuclear ambitions."

Bush also offered advice for what Iraq's prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, should say to Ahmadinejad. The U.S. accuses Iran of seeking dominance over Iraqi affairs and of training and supplying Shiite militia fighters with the ability to target Americans; Tehran has denied the charge.

"The message needs to be: Quit sending in sophisticated equipment that's killing our citizens and that the message will be that we're negotiating a long-term security aggreement with the United States precisely because we want enough breathing space for our democracy to develop."

Denmark is hosting an important climate meeting in December 2009 and the prime minister used his appearance with Bush to push for U.S. contributions to reducing carbon emissions to slow global warming.

"We need a comprehensive global agreement and American leadership is needed to reach that goal," Fogh Rasmussen said.

He also pleaded for American leadership to persuade fast-growing nations such as China and India to cut emissions.

One delicate topic that did not come up in public was Denmark's decision to investigate claims the CIA secretly used an airport on his country's remote Arctic territory of Greenland as part of the CIA's "extraordinary rendition" program for suspected terrorists.

The trip to the ranch was a diplomatic coup for Fogh Rasmussen. He pedaled around Camp David in Maryland with Bush in 2006 and went mountain biking with the president at the ranch Friday.

Bush said the two biked Saturday morning before their appearance — and he seemed in awe of his visitor. "The man did not even break into a sweat," Bush said, before serving his guest cheeseburgers and potato salad for lunch. "You're in incredible condition."

Fogh Rasmussen was gracious, calling his visit "a challenging stay, I must say."

"You made me work very hard out there," he said.