President Bush began the new year by visiting with U.S. soldiers who were injured in Iraq or Afghanistan. Mr. Bush ended a holiday stay in his home state of Texas with a stop at a military hospital near San Antonio.
The president met in private with about 50 patients and their families at Fort Sam Houston's Brooke Army Medical Center. As he prepared to leave the facility, he shared his thoughts with reporters. "I am just overwhelmed by the great strength of character of not only those who have been wounded, but their loved ones as well," said the president.
During his visit, the president awarded nine Purple Hearts - the highest military medal given to those injured in combat. Aides say the purpose of the hospital visit was to thank the wounded for their service and their sacrifice.
Mr. Bush was asked when troops serving in Iraq may be able to come home. He said once again that any American withdrawal would be conditions-based, emphasizing he will rely on his military commanders for recommendations on troop levels.
His top military advisor is Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Marine General Peter Pace. In an interview with ABC television's This Week program, General Pace said political considerations - most notably November's U.S. congressional election - will not play a role in advice the military gives the White House. "We all clearly understand our responsibility to access our needs, to tell our civilian leaders what those needs are, and to look everybody in the eye and tell the truth as we know it," he said.
General Pace spoke from Baghdad, which he is visiting for the first time in his new capacity as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. He was asked about the low level of Sunni participation in the Iraqi military, and if that might hamper efforts to bring the country together. General Pace said there is room for improvement, and said Iraq's leaders are trying to address the problem. "I think everyone understands over here that for this government to be successful, it is going to have to be inclusive," he said, "and to be inclusive as a government, you need to have an inclusive military and an inclusive police."
In a subsequent interview on CNN's Late Edition, Senator Richard Durbin (Democrat - Illinois) stressed that 2006 must be a year of nationhood for Iraq. He said he does not want to see a firm timetable for a U.S. withdrawal, but quickly added the Iraqis must understand American forces cannot remain forever. "We have to say with clarity to the Iraqis that we are not staying there indefinitely; we are not going to continue to risk American lives and American treasure every single day; this is your country and your responsibility," said the senator.
Senator Durbin said the huge turnout in last month's election for a new government in Iraq demonstrated how much the Iraqi people want to govern themselves. He said they defied terrorists and insurgents to express their willingness to move forward as a nation.