In a surprise trip shrouded in secrecy, President Bush and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates flew roughly 11 hours to a remote air base in western Iraq for a meeting with senior U.S. military leaders and top Iraqi political leadership.
After hearing from top U.S. and Iraqi leaders, President Bush said that some U.S. troops could be sent home if security conditions across Iraq continue to improve as they have in Anbar province. Bush also said that the U.S. will not abandon the Iraqi people.
President Bush also spoke to a crowd of cheering troops during his visit. He thanked U.S. troops for their bravery and said that successes in Anbar province were a result of their hard work.
Bush added that reduction in U.S. troop numbers in Iraq would be based on calm assessment and not the "nervous reaction" of politicians in Washington.
Bush met with Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, and U.S. ambassador to Baghdad Ryan Crocker at the Al Asad Air Base.
Addressing future U.S. involvement in Iraq, Petraeus said that "there are limits to what our military can provide" and that his decisions will be guided by the strain "we have put on our military services."
National security adviser Stephen Hadley told reporters the Al Asad Air Base in the Anbar province was chosen because of its remarkable turnaround in security. A year ago violence was high and a military intelligence officer said it was lost to al Qaeda.
Bush and Gates were joined by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in Iraq.
In a short and exclusive interview with ABC News in Iraq, Gates, who usually avoids happy talk, said, "I am more optimistic now than at any time since I took the job."
He cited improvements in security, and, more importantly, progress in "bottom-up" reconciliation at the local level as reasons for his optimism.
Gates said he has made up his mind about his recommendation to Bush on troop levels, but would not say what he has decided.
During a short news briefing after Bush's speech, national security adviser Stephen Hadley said the president would likely address the American people about the way forward in Iraq shortly after Petraeus and Crocker testify before Congress. As for this surprise trip, Hadley said they began planning for it "about five or six weeks ago."
Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell described this extraordinary meeting as a "decisional meeting."
"This is the last opportunity the president will have to meet with his war council and the Iraqi leadership before making his decision on the way forward in Iraq," Morrell said. "This is clearly a meeting geared toward making a decision."
Senior officials traveling with Gates portrayed the visit as a chance to hear directly from the U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, and U.S. ambassador Ryan Crocker one last time before making decisions about the future course for the U.S. military in Iraq.
"Nothing beats the opportunity to look David Petraeus in the eye and Ambassador Crocker and say, 'What's the situation? What do you think?'" a senior defense official told reporters en route to Iraq.