President George W. Bush said on Tuesday that some American troops would remain in Iraq past 2008 and suggested a decision on complete withdrawal would be left to future presidents.
During a press conference, Mr Bush was asked whether US troops would ever leave Iraq completely. “That, of course, is an objective,” Mr Bush responded. “That will be decided by future presidents and future governments of Iraq.”
In the past Mr Bush has refused to provide a timetable for reducing troops, saying any decision would be based on conditions in Iraq. When pressed on Tuesday on whether his response meant the US would not withdraw its troops completely while he was president, Mr Bush repeated his mantra that troop-level decisions would be based on recommendations from commanders on the ground.
Mr Bush was speaking about Iraq for the second sucessive day as part of a White House campaign to boost flagging domestic support for the war. Facing his lowest-ever approval ratings, he conceded that both the public and congressional Republicans were concerned about Iraq. But, while recognising a “certain unease” ahead of November’s mid-term elections, he stressed that the US could still achieve victory.
“I’m optimistic we’ll succeed. If not, I’d pull our troops out,” Mr Bush said.
The recent escalation in sectarian violence, which followed the bombing of the Shia Golden Mosque in Samarra last month, has made it more difficult for Mr Bush to argue that the US is making progress.
“I’m optimistic about being able to achieve a victory,” Mr Bush said. “But I’m also realistic...I understand people’s lives are being lost.”
Iyad Allawi, the former Iraqi prime minister, told the BBC on Sunday that Iraq was in a state of civil war and was heading to the “point of no return”. “If this is not civil war, then God knows what civil war is,” Mr Allawi said.
Mr Bush denied that. He cited the fact that Iraqi security forces had not “bust up into sectarian divisions” and argued that some religious leaders, such as Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, had denounced violence after the mosque attack.
A recent AP/Ipsos poll found that nearly 80 per cent of Americans believed Iraq to be heading towards civil war. Americans are also less confident that the war is worth fighting as the number of deaths of troops and Iraqi citizens mounts. Almost 2,600 US soldiers have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Iraq Body Count, an organisation that monitors Iraqi deaths from media reports, estimates that as many as 37,800 Iraqis may have died since the 2003 invasion.
John Warner, the Republican chairman of the Senate armed services committee, speaking in Iraq on Tuesday, urged Iraqi leaders to form a united government quickly, warning American public support for the war could plummet even further.
Donald Rumsfeld, US defence secretary, recently suggested that Iraqi forces would be responsible for dealing with any civil war. Mr Bush yesterday dismissed calls for Mr Rumsfeld’s resignation, saying he had done a “fine job” in prosecuting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.