President Bush is hosting a meeting at the White House Saturday to review the situation in Iraq with senior civilian officials and military officers. The meeting comes amid growing criticism of his policy among politicians and analysts, and word from Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld that senior officials are working on a schedule for handing over responsibility to the new Iraqi government.
The White House meeting will bring together President Bush with Vice-president Cheney, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, the top U.S. generals responsible for Iraq and other senior officials. The gathering comes just two days after the senior U.S. military spokesman in Iraq triggered a storm of speculation about the future of U.S. policy toward the country.
On Thursday, General William Caldwell called the high U.S. casualty level 'disheartening,' said the two-month-old Baghdad security operation is not working very well and announced that a review of that policy was underway.
At a news conference Friday, Secretary Rumsfeld said top U.S. generals met that morning to discuss Iraq and prepare for Saturday's meeting with the president. He has portrayed the policy review as routine, but he also reported that the U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, and the top U.S. general in the country, George Casey, are working on a plan to put some sort of timeframe on the process of handing responsibility for security and civilian administration to the new Iraqi government.
"The ambassador and General Casey are currently working with the Iraqi government to develop a set of projections as to when they think they can pass off areas, pieces of responsibility," he said.
Secretary Rumsfeld noted that that the handing over of responsibility has already begun, and he said it has mostly been successful. But the southern town of Amara was part of that process, and on Friday angry Shiite militiamen tried to take over the town, sparking a series of street battles that killed more than two dozen people. Earlier this week, violence flared in another town under Iraqi control, the northern city of Balad. Secretary Rumsfeld said that sort of thing may happen as Iraq forces get used to having full responsibility. But he said the process must continue, and that where there are setbacks corrections will be made.
He said the Iraqi government and military have to be ready to take responsibility, in his words, 'sooner rather than later.'