Burdened by low approval ratings on his handling of the war, the president is under mounting pressure to come up with a new blueprint for U.S. involvement in Iraq, where the execution of Saddam Hussein perhaps as early as this weekend could incite further violence.
"We've got more consultation to do until I talk to the country about the plan," Mr. Bush said, appearing before reporters outside an office building near his Texas ranch. Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates flanked Mr. Bush as he made his statement.
"The key to success in Iraq is to have a government that's willing to deal with the elements that are trying to prevent this young democracy from succeeding," the president said.
The session was billed as a chance for Mr. Bush to further discuss all the options — including one that would send another 20,000 troops into Baghdad, which would almost certainly mean more American casualties, CBS News national security correspondent David Martin reports.
Playing down expectations, the White House called the meeting a "non-decisional" gathering.
As Mr. Bush spoke, the administration was preparing for the as early as this weekend, based on information that U.S. officials in Baghdad were receiving from the Iraqi government, a senior administration official said.
Mr. Bush has been saddled with low approval ratings on the war and is under increasing pressure to come up with a new war plan in Iraq, where the Saddam's execution could incite further violence. The president took no questions from reporters and offered no details about the strategy he is set to announce to the nation sometime next month.
The president is considering the so-called surge option: increasing the number of troops in Iraq and embedding more U.S. advisers in Iraqi units in hopes of quelling violence to provide a window of opportunity for political reconciliation and rebuilding.
One of the options is to send another 20,000 troops into Baghdad, which would almost certainly mean more American casualties.
A Pentagon official says commanders in Iraq told Gates they could support a surge in troops, if it was part of a larger plan to turn responsibility over to Iraqi forces and to put unemployed Iraqis back to work with reconstruction projects, Martin reports. But the same official said a smaller buildup — of about 8,000 U.S. troops — is the most Iraqi prime minister Malaki could handle politically.
"I think the debate is really coming down to: Surge large. Surge small. Surge short. Surge longer," said Tom Donnelly, a defense and security expert at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. "I think the smart money would say that the range of options is fairly narrow and driven by the situation on the ground in Iraq.
"Some military experts viewed the president's unexpected remarks last week that he backs future expansion of the overall size of the Army and Marine Corps to lessen strain on ground forces as a hint that he plans to send in more troops.
"As I think about this plan, I always have our troops in mind," Mr. Bush said in a brief statement in which he thanked the troops for their service.
He pledged to continue consulting with members of Congress and the Iraqis and stressed the importance of having a government in Iraq that can deal with the militias and the rising violence.
Mr. Bush said one of his resolutions for the new year is that the troops will be safe and that the United States would come closer to its goal in 2007 of having an Iraq that can sustain independence and govern itself.
"We want to help them succeed," he said, adding that "I fully understand that it's important to have both Republicans and Democrats understanding the importance of this mission.
"It's important for the American people to understand that success in Iraq is vital for our own security. If we were not to succeed in Iraq, the enemy — the extremists, the radicals — would have safe haven from which to launch further attacks. They would be emboldened. They would be in a position to threaten the United States of America."
But the president's decision to invade Iraq from an unlikely source: late president Gerald Ford.
Martin reports that in an interview conducted two years ago by Bob Woodward of the Washington Post, but released only after Ford's death, he said, "I don't think I would have ordered the Iraqi war."
A senior administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity because the president had already publicly talked about the meeting said the gathering lasted nearly three hours and was followed by a lunch. Another National Security Council session was likely before Mr. Bush announces his plan in the first few weeks of January, the official said.
He said that Gates and Pace, who just returned from Iraq, elaborated on the briefing they gave the president at Camp David, Md., before Christmas and talked more about what they saw and heard on the ground. The bulk of the meeting focused on security, but the president and his advisers also talked about economic and political issues in Iraq.
The official said that following memorial events for former President Gerald R. Ford and the start of the new Congress on Jan. 4, Mr. Bush and his advisers would be conducting further consultations with lawmakers.
"I would be surprised if people walked out of the room still completely confused as to the direction he wants to go in," John Podesta, former President Bill Clinton's chief of staff and president of the liberal Center for American Progress, said Wednesday. "If they do, that's yet another bad sign that we're completely adrift."
Initially, White House advisers said Mr. Bush would announce a plan before the Dec. 25 Christmas holiday. Then, they said it was more likely after the first of the year. Now, they say only that Mr. Bush will deliver his speech sometime between New Year's and his State of the Union address on Jan. 23.
"They've got to be looking at his poll ratings that have sunk to record low levels and say, 'We've got to get out there and change the political discourse on this question' and try to re-establish the president's authority," Podesta said, adding that each day Mr. Bush delays announcing his decision, the public becomes more skeptical that he has a plausible plan.
In another action that might foreshadow an increase in troops, the Pentagon on Wednesday announced that the 2nd Brigade, 82nd Airborne Division will deploy to Kuwait to serve as the reserve force early next year.
The unit — which would include as many as 3,300 soldiers — is expected to be deployed into Iraq early next year. The move could be part of a short-term surge of troops to the battlefront to quell the continuing violence.
In a letter to congressional leaders on Wednesday, Podesta and other policy makers urged lawmakers to fund troops already in Iraq and Afghanistan. But he suggested that an up-or-down vote in Congress be required if lawmakers are asked to fund more than 150,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. There are about 140,000. In addition, the letter calls for putting limits on the mobilization of National Guard and Reserve forces.