US President George W. Bush and visiting British Prime Minister Tony Blair, at a joint press conference held after their talks in the White House on Thursday, vowed to keep US and British troops in Iraq until the new Iraqi government takes control.
Bush said that before the Iraqi government achieves the goal of governing itself, sustaining itself and defending itself, the United States will not withdraw its 130,000 troops.
Bush also declined to discuss reports saying that the Pentagon hoped to reduce US troops in Iraq to about 100,000 by the end of this year. It was just "speculation in the press," Bush said.
According to a report by the New York Times on May 23, senior Pentagon officials spoke late last year of cutting American troops' strength to about 100,000 by the end of this year, but senior Bush administration officials, including Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, have backed away from such statements in recent weeks.
For his part, Blair, who has just concluded a visit to Iraq on Monday, said all the Iraqis he talked with during his stay wanted the US-led coalition troops to remain in the country.
"Not a single one of the people I talked to, not one of the political leaders, from whatever part of the spectrum in Iraq that I talked to ... not one of them wanted us to pull out precipitately. All of them wanted us to stick with it and see the job done," Blair said.
Although Bush and Blair insisted on not withdrawing troops out of Iraq, increasing domestic pressure has forced them to adjust US and British troops roles in Iraq on one hand and make preparations for future withdrawals on the other.
As the Iraq war has become more and more unpopular in both the United States and Britain, the approval ratings of Bush and Blair have plummeted. A New York Times/CBS News poll released on May 10 showed that Bush's approval rating hit a new low of 31 percent, the lowest in his presidency. And Blair was no better. According to a poll by the Daily Telegraph on May 10, Blair's approval rating was only 26 percent, making Blair the least popular prime minister from the Labor Party.
"As the new Iraqi government grows in confidence and capability, America will play an increasingly supporting role," Bush said on Wednesday, signaling a changing role for the US military in Iraq.
Actually, the United States has been changing its tactics in Iraq as Iraqi security forces now shoulder more and more security responsibilities and American forces become less visible.
Moreover, Peter Schoolmaker, the Army Chief of Staff, said on Thursday that he was planning for the possibility of maintaining the current troop level in Iraq for the next two years, while anticipating potential troop cuts.
On the other hand, British officials have said they expect all foreign troops to be out of Iraq within four years. This has been the firmest statement yet from Britain, the most staunch ally of the United States in the Iraq war.
All this shows the dilemma both the United States and Britain have been facing: on the one hand, they need to maintain enough strength in Iraq to help the Iraqi government fight insurgents and more importantly, to achieve its strategic objective in Iraq and in the Middle East; on the other hand, they have to make preparations for troop cuts because of increasing domestic pressure.
Both Bush and Blair admitted that the past three years after the downfall of the Saddam Hussein regime had been difficult. It is believed that the two staunch allies will still have to make the more difficult choice of when to reduce troops, or when to completely withdraw from Iraq in the future.
(Xinhua News Agency May 26, 2006)