President Bush hinted that a reduction in troop levels in Iraq could happen soon with improved security there.
He made the comment during a surprise visit with troops and U.S. military officials in Anbar Province on Monday. The visit comes a week ahead of a key report on the progress of the war, which will inevitably help Congress decide whether to keep funding it.
President Bush's visit was an unannounced detour on his way to Australia, where he landed Tuesday for the start of a summit of 21 Asia-Pacific countries.
It was Bush's third surprise trip to Iraq. The first two were to Baghdad.
This time he landed in the Iraqi desert — more than 100 miles west of the capital — to get on-the-ground briefings from advisers, including Gen. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, and Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq.
Crocker and Petraeus will deliver the report before Congress next week.
"General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker have said that if the security situation continues to improve the way it has, we may be able to achieve the same objectives with fewer troops," President Bush said.
He emphasized the word "if." And he didn't say how many troops could be withdrawn, or when.
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Joe Biden, who planned to visit Iraq on Tuesday, said that if Bush was considering simply reducing troops below the pre-surge level of 130,000, "that's not withdrawal."
"The withdrawal would be getting us out of the middle of that civil war," Biden said on CBS' The Early Show. "There is virtually no political progress being made. I hope everyone levels with the American people. This is a civil war and we shouldn't be in the midst of it."
The president told reporters aboard Air Force One on Monday night that his strategy sessions with U.S. and Iraqi leaders and chats about morale with soldiers and Marines at an air base in western Iraq left him hopeful that positive change is starting in the 4-year-old war.
The question, he said, is, "Will it last?"
Bush is nearing a decision on how long to maintain the current U.S. troop buildup. He sent 30,000 additional U.S. troops to Iraq to enhance security in Baghdad and Anbar Province. Despite military successes, political progress — especially at the national level — is lagging and Democrats and some prominent Republicans want troops called home.
"How many troops does it take to protect us?" the president asked. "What does it take to have this Iraqi democracy succeed?"
Debate over the Iraq war was certain to surface at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum.
Bush begins summit talks Wednesday, meeting with Australian Prime Minister John Howard, who joined with Bush and then-British Prime Minister Tony Blair in the invasion of Iraq. Howard is facing an aggressive election challenge from opposition leader Kevin Rudd, and Rudd's desire to pull Australian troops out of Iraq will surely be broached in the talks.
Bush also is scheduled to meet with leaders from Japan, China, Russia and South Korea.
From NPR reports and The Associated Press