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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

Bush, Senior Administration Officials in Iraq

03 September 2007

President Bush and his Secretaries of State and Defense are on a surprise visit to Iraq's western al-Anbar Province for meetings with senior Iraqi leaders, who made a rare trip to the region to see them. The president and his team will also meet with senior U.S. officials, and local tribal leaders who have switched their allegiance from al-Qaida to the coalition. VOA's Al Pessin reports from the remote al-Asad Air Base.

The president made an unannounced detour to Iraq while on his way to Australia for regional meetings, bringing Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice with him. Air Force One touched down at this sprawling, dusty air base, in a province that has gone from being the most violent and anti-government part of Iraq to one of the country's main security success stories.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates and senior military officers are also attending the meeting.

Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell says the meetings bring together the president's "war council" with top Iraqi leaders that will play a key role in decisions the president must make about the future of U.S. policy toward Iraq, including troop levels.

Morrell says this may be the president's last chance to meet with the top U.S. commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker, before they give highly-anticipated testimony to the Congress next week, shortly after the president returns from Australia.

Their reports will assess the surge of U.S. forces, the new counter-terrorism strategy and the performance of Iraqi leaders and their army and police forces in forging national reconciliation and contributing to security.

A senior official traveling with Secretary Gates says these meetings will be "instrumental" in the decision-making process.

Many members of congress are calling for the start of a U.S. troop withdrawal this year, but combat commanders have said that would be too soon. But the commanders acknowledge that the surge forces will begin to return home next April, at the latest, and it would be difficult for the U.S. military to replace them.

U.S. officials say Iraqi politicians have just a few months to forge some sort of national reconciliation in the environment of enhanced security the surge has provided.

President Bush and his team are also meeting with local Sunni tribal leaders, whose decision earlier this year to reject al-Qaida and work with U.S. and Iraqi forces has dramatically improved security in al-Anbar.

But the senior official traveling with Secretary Gates calls the change "unexpected" and "almost serendipitous." The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, says al-Qaida alienated local people with the extent of its violence and its extremist views, and the tribal leaders came to see their future as better tied to the government in Baghdad, even though it is mostly Shiite.

But he says the tribal leaders might not have chosen to work with the government if the United States had not demonstrated its commitment to restoring order in Iraq. The official says Secretary Gates wants to do what he can to help solidify that relationship through this visit, and by increasing U.S. and Iraqi aid to al-Anbar.

The meetings involving President Bush and Secretaries Rice and Gates also include the commander of all U.S. forces in the Middle East, Admiral William Fallon, and the top U.S. military officer, General Peter Pace. It is exceptional for so many senior U.S. civilian and military officials converge anywhere in the world for meetings with foreign leaders. But with so much attention focused on next week's progress reports, the senior official says there was no better way to assess the situation than to meet in person with the Iraqi officials and look the U.S. commanders "in the eye."

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