WASHINGTON — President Bush made a surprise visit to Iraq Monday in the White House's latest effort to bolster support for continuing the "surge" of additional U.S. troops in Iraq as the debate over the war there enters a critical phase on Capitol Hill.
Bush left Washington Sunday under the cloak of darkness and the guise that he was preparing to depart for an economic conference in Australia, and flew to Al Asad Air Base, a sprawling, heavily fortified American facility in Iraq's mostly Sunni Muslim Anbar province.
There, he met with Iraqi tribal leaders, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki; Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, and with Army Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, and addressed troops in the western Iraqi province.
Bush's mission was simple and unmistakable: to sell his argument that the surge is working and urge Congress not to support any rapid, large-scale withdrawal from Iraq. After meeting with Crocker and Petraeus, however, Bush held out the possibility that some U.S. troops could be withdrawn if security continues to improve.
"Here in Anbar and across Iraq, al Qaida and other enemies of freedom will continue to try to kill the innocent in order to impose their dark ideology," Bush said. "But General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker tell me if the kind of success we are seeing now continues, it will be possible to maintain the same level of security with fewer American forces."
The president didn't say how many troops could be withdrawn from Iraq or when. The first of the roughly 28,000 additional troops that Bush sent to Iraq earlier this year are due to come home next spring. Administration officials said any talk of a troop drawdown would become moot if security erodes in Iraq.
Bush, however, delivered an upbeat assessment of the situation Monday, telling the reporters who made the trip with him: "When you stand on the ground here in Anbar and hear from the people who live here, you can see what the future of Iraq can look like."
Bush's latest pitch for staying the course in Iraq comes as Congress returns from vacation for a series of hearings and reports that could alter the course of the war. Lawmakers are scheduled to hear from Petraeus and Crocker, and Bush is to deliver a status report to Congress on Sept. 15.
In preparation, the White House has launched a full-throated offensive to show that the surge is working and that pulling out of Iraq now would yield disastrous results. Bush argues that enhanced security in Iraq is working to improve the political situation, at least at the local level, and that "bottom-up" political improvements will lead to the national political reconciliation that's yet to occur.
"We share a common goal: a free Iraq that has a government that responds to the people," Bush said after meeting with leaders of Iraq's government. "The government they represent, of course, is based in Baghdad, but they're in Anbar because they know the success of a free Iraq depends on the national government's support from the bottom up."
Recent reports, however, challenge the "bottom-up" approach and question whether Iraq's national government — particularly under Maliki's leadership — is up to the task of achieving reconciliation.
A draft report by the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, said that Iraq has met only three of 18 congressionally mandated benchmarks for political and military progress. A National Intelligence Estimate last month offered a bleak forecast of Iraq's future, saying the political situation would become "more precarious" over the next 12 months.
The report also warned that "bottom up" reconciliation could do more harm than good to Iraq. It concluded that strengthening provincial groups, such as the Sunni tribes who increasingly have fought al Qaida in Iraq, could weaken the national government.
While Bush has expressed faith in Maliki's government, a draft report by the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad said government is plagued by corruption and has stymied investigations of its political friends. National Public Radio first reported that assessment.
Still, Bush said his message to Iraqis Monday was that despite the setbacks, his administration would stand by them.
"I'm going to reassure them that America does not abandon our friends," he said.
Bush spent about six hours on the ground in Iraq on a trip that White House officials said was planned five or six weeks ago.
Bush was scheduled to spend Sunday evening in Washington before departing for Australia. Instead, he ducked out of the White House and headed to Maryland's Andrews Air Force Base in a car with only one accompanying vehicle, not the multi-vehicle motorcade that traditionally escorts the president.
Members of the press pool who travel aboard Air Force One were told of the trip on Saturday but instructed to tell only one editor and their spouse about where they were going.