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U.S. Officials Restate Bush's New Iraq Strategy

  • Andrew Tully --> Condoleeza Rice takes part in the Washington press conference today (epa) WASHINGTON, January 11, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The morning after President George W. Bush announced plans to increase U.S. troop strength in Iraq, his secretaries of state and defense reinforced his determination to keep the country from collapsing under insurgent and sectarian violence.

But during a press briefing today at the White House, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice acknowledged that they don't yet have all the answers to questions arising from the war, which has been raging for nearly four years.

Gates said he doesn't know how long the United States will need to keep the extra troops in Iraq. But he said the answer should become evident in a few months, based on the pace of progress in Baghdad.

In Harm's Way

Gates said he has no illusions about the dangers this enlarged force will face.

"If this strategy is successful, over time, we will see a lessening of violence in Baghdad," Gates said. "We are going to be, to a certain extent, the prisoners of anyone who wants to strap on a bomb and blow themselves up."

Gates said now is the time to act because -- as he put it -- "the credibility of the United States is on the line in Iraq." He said both allies and enemies in the Middle East will be watching to see if Washington fulfills its obligations.

Bush pledged on January 10 to send 21,500 additional troops to Iraq in an effort to quell the sectarian violence that's focused mostly in Baghdad, and to battle insurgents and Al-Qaeda-connected fighters, most of them in Al-Anbar Governorate to the west of the capital.

No 'Open-Ended' Commitment

Bush said he hopes the troop increase will give the Iraqi government the opportunity to take greater control of the country's security. He said he told Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki that U.S. help isn't -- in Bush's words -- "open-ended."

Bush warned that al-Maliki's government will lose the support of both the American and Iraqi people if he doesn't act decisively -- particularly against Shi'ite and Sunni militias responsible for Iraq's increased sectarian violence.

Rice echoed that sentiment today at the White House briefing.

"Among Americans and Iraqis, there is no confusion over one basic fact: It is the Iraqis who are responsible for what kind of country Iraq will be," Rice said. "It is they who must decide whether Iraq will be characterized by national unity or sectarian conflict. The president has conveyed to the Iraqi leadership that we will support their good decisions but that Americans' patience is limited."

Not Looking For Help From Damascus, Tehran

Rice also reaffirmed Bush's refusal to engage Iran and Syria in negotiations on Iraq's future. To do so, she said, could make Washington appear weak to friends and foes alike.

"Syria and Iran should end their destabilizing behavior in the region," Rice said. "They cannot be 'paid' to do so. That would only embolden our enemies and demoralize our friends, both in Iraq and across the region, all of whom are watching to see whether America has the will to keep its commitments."

Later, Rice appeared before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where she sought support from Congress by restating the administration's position that Iraqis themselves have the responsibility for bringing peace to their country.

But many members of Congress have expressed skepticism about Bush's new plan. Both the Senate and the House of Representatives are now controlled by Democrats, Bush's political opponents, after voters stripped Republicans of their majorities in elections on November 7.

On The Verge Of Civil War

The Imam Al-Mahdi Army on parade (epa)

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THE COMPLETE PICTURE: Click on the image to view RFE/RL's complete coverage of events in Iraq and that country's ongoing transition.