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Bush Mulls Iraq Troop Buildup

President Bush met with top defense officials in Washington Wednesday after telling the nation he was willing to consider a troop buildup in Iraq.

Mr. Bush chaired a National Security Council meeting that included a video link with the top U.S. commander in the region and Iraq administrator Paul Bremer. He also met with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

The sessions came the morning after the president told a prime-time news conference that he's ready to send in more U.S. troops to Iraq if that's what General John Abizaid, the commander of American forces there, needs to quell a bloody insurgency.

"If additional forces are needed, I will send them," Mr. Bush said Tuesday night. "If additional resources are needed, we will provide them."

CBS News Military Analyst Col. Mitch Mitchell (Ret.) says many more troops are needed in Iraq to bring about an end to violence, but they need not be all Americans.

"We don't need 10,000 troops," Mitchell said. "We need 400,000 troops on the ground to control Iraq, to give them the peacekeeping force that will give them stability and allow them to determine their own fate. We don't have anything near that now, so the troops that we have there are going to be the fire brigade – put out a fire here, put out a fire there, but they'll never be able to pacify Iraq like it should be pacified."

In his opening remarks Tuesday night, Mr. Bush said he's committed to the June 30th handover to Iraqi self-rule even though he doesn't know yet what form the interim government will take.

The president conceded it's been a couple of "tough weeks in Iraq," but he remained firm about the U.S. mission there, saying he intends to "finish the work of the fallen" and usher in a new era of democracy.

Mr. Bush rejected a suggestion that Iraq was becoming another Vietnam — a quagmire without ready exit. "I think that analogy is false," he said. "I also happen to think that analogy sends the wrong message to our troops and it sends the wrong message to our enemy."

He said the recent spike in savage violence in Iraq is neither a civil war nor a popular uprising. "The violence we've seen is a power grab by ... extreme and ruthless elements" from inside Iraq and from outside.

Mr. Bush's first prime-time news conference since before the war began – and only the third of his presidency – came midway through the deadliest month for Americans since Baghdad fell last spring. At least 83 U.S. forces have been killed and more than 560 wounded in April, according to the U.S. military, as American troops fight on three fronts: against Sunni insurgents in Fallujah, Shiite militiamen in the south and gunmen in Baghdad and on its outskirts. At least 678 U.S. troops have died since the war began in March 2003.

Additionally, four American employees of a private security company working in Iraq were killed and their bodies mutilated two weeks ago, and Thomas Hamill, a employee another firm, was seized as a hostage since last week.

While Mr. Bush opened with a statement about Iraq, the questions he was asked by reporters were broader, focusing as well on the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Mr. Bush sidestepped questions about whether he would apologize to the families of Sept. 11 victims – as his former top terrorism adviser Richard Clarke did recently – or take personal responsibility.

"Had I had any inkling whatsoever that people were going to fly airplanes into buildings, we would have moved heaven and earth to protect the country. Just like we're working to prevent further attacks," he said.

Asked whether he felt any responsibility for the attack, Mr. Bush said he grieved for the families of the victims and said in retrospect he wished, for example, the Homeland Security Department had been in place.

Mr. Bush did not say so, but even after the attack, he initially opposed creation of the agency. He changed his mind under prodding from lawmakers.

The president also said a highly publicized intelligence briefing he received on Aug. 6, 2001, contained "nothing new" in terms of disclosing that Osama bin Laden hoped to attack the United States. He was heartened, he said, by the disclosure that the FBI was conducting numerous investigations.

But that claim was undercut earlier in the day at a televised hearing by the commission investigating the terrorist attacks. Former Acting FBI Director Thomas Pickard testified he didn't know where the material came from, and one commission member, Slade Gorton, suggested many of the investigations related to fund raising, not the threat of attacks.

Mr. Bush said he would investigate the matter.

While he addressed matters of war and peace, election-year politics shadowed the proceedings. Asked whether he believes he has acted correctly even if it costs him his job, he replied quickly, "I don't intend to lose my job. Because I'm going to tell the American people I have a plan to win the war on terror."

Iraq figures in Mr. Bush's decline in public opinion polls in two areas that are critical for his re-election campaign. Approval of his handling of Iraq has declined to the mid-40 percent level, and approval for his handling of terrorism has dipped into the mid-50s. Growing numbers of people say the military action in Iraq has increased rather than decreased the threat of terrorism.