White House

Bush confers with House Republicans about Iraq strategy

WASHINGTON—President Bush defended his Iraq strategy Friday in a closed-door meeting with Republicans in the House of Representatives and told reporters that he's "the decision-maker" on troop deployments even if Congress opposes his plans.

Bush brushed off his critics as congressional Democrats discussed ways to limit his war-making powers. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., speaking at a Washington research center, outlined a series of steps Congress could take that would go well beyond the nonbinding resolution that's scheduled for Senate debate next week.

The resolution would put Congress on record against the president's plan to send 21,500 more troops to Iraq, but would do nothing to stop it. Hoyer said that additional possible steps included imposing limits on war spending and revising the congressional resolution that authorized the 2003 Iraq invasion. A revised authorization could be used to redefine the mission.

Hoyer didn't commit to any of the options. Although Democrats are under pressure from antiwar activists to get tough with Bush, party leaders are wary of any action that could be seen as undermining the troops.

A defiant Bush suggested that lawmakers should stifle their criticism and let him put his plan into action.

"I'm the decision-maker, and I had to come up with a way forward that precluded disaster," the president said. "Some are condemning a plan before it's even had a chance to work."

He defended the plan during a White House photo session with Lt. Gen. David Petraeus, who won Senate confirmation 81-0 Friday to become the top U.S. commander in Iraq.

On a related topic, Bush defended his policy of targeting Iranian operatives in Iraq as part of the effort to protect U.S. troops and win the war. He stressed, however, that he isn't expanding the war across the Iranian border; "that's a presumption that simply is not accurate."

"We believe that we can solve our problems with Iran diplomatically, and we are working to do that," the president said. "As a matter of fact, we're making pretty good progress on that front."

Two hours later, Bush was on Maryland's Eastern Shore, trying to bolster congressional support during a visit with House Republicans at their legislative retreat.

"The plan I outlined to the American people is one that I believe can succeed," the president told lawmakers before reporters were ushered out of the room. House Republicans had holed up at a resort in Cambridge, Md. to plan their strategy for the new Democratic-controlled Congress.

Democrats want to attract as many Republican votes as possible to give the anti-escalation resolution more political punch.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Republicans could face a voter backlash if they opposed the resolution.

"There are 21 (Senate) Republicans up for re-election this time (2008). If they think this is going to be a soft vote for them, they've got another thing coming," Reid said.

Separately, at his first Pentagon news conference, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the anti-escalation resolution "emboldens the enemy."

In Iraq, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., led a visiting delegation of senior House members on a fact-finding tour in Baghdad. They issued a statement saying they'd told U.S. and Iraqi officials there that "it is well past time for the Iraqis to take primary responsibility for the security of their nation" and "we are convinced that there must be a political solution to the problems in Iraq" worked out by Iraqis themselves.

Hoyer, the House Democratic leader, said Bush's plan to send more troops to Iraq had generated "enormous bipartisan skepticism." He said House Democrats would keep the pressure on the White House after approving the nonbinding resolution by holding a series of hearings on various aspects of the war.

Whatever step Congress takes to try to force a change of strategy, it will demand that the president answer three questions, Hoyer said: Is Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki meeting benchmarks for progress? How long does Bush plan to keep U.S. troops in Iraq? And how will he get other countries to cooperate in finding a political resolution to the conflict?

House Democrats have written three letters to the president since July calling for an international conference to help Iraq end the violence and rebuild. The Democrats' plan also calls for shifting responsibility for security to Iraqi forces and starting a gradual withdrawal of American forces in the next six months.

Hoyer, who voted for the war, said he wouldn't have done so if he had known that it would be waged in "such an incompetent, arrogant, unplanned and unsuccessful manner."