Bush remains undecided about number of troop in Iraq

BOGOR, Indonesia – President Bush said yesterday he isn’t ready to decide between rival calls to increase or scale back U.S. troops in Iraq. Unruffled by street protests against his policy, he said they were a healthy sign of democracy in this Muslim nation.

Facing growing disapproval at home for the Iraq war, Bush heard no criticism or demands for troop cuts from Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. The Indonesian leader said the “global community must be also responsible in solving the problems in Iraq” along with the United States.

Awaiting the results of a Pentagon review and recommendations from a special commission exploring Iraq options, Bush refused to tip his hand about any change in the level of American forces in Iraq, now at more than 140,000.

Back in the U.S., the Republican chairman of the House Armed Services Committee said more Iraqi troops should be pushed to the front lines. “We need to saddle those up and deploy them to the fight,” primarily in Baghdad, said Rep. Duncan Hunter of California.

Prominent Democrats have called for a timetable for troop withdrawals. Some Republicans – notably potential Republican presidential candidate John McCain – are urging a heavy buildup of forces to quell the violence in Baghdad.

“I haven’t made any decisions about troop increases or troop decreases, and won’t until I hear from a variety of sources,” Bush said, standing alongside Yudhoyono at a news conference in the presidential palace.

Asked specifically whether there were any risks in increasing U.S. troops, Bush said, “There’s no need to comment on something that may not happen. But if it were to happen, I will tell you the upsides and downside.”

A study of options is under way by a Pentagon group for Gen. Peter Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Those options include sending more U.S. troops, reducing the force but staying longer or simply pulling out, The Washington Post reported yesterday.

Indonesia was the last foreign stop on Bush’s eight-day, postelection journey that also has taken him to Singapore and Vietnam. He met in Hanoi with world leaders to seek a common strategy for talks aimed at encouraging North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program.

Concerns for Bush’s safety in Indonesia were heightened after police warned of an increased risk of attack by al-Qaida-linked militants. Bush is widely disliked in this country because of strong U.S. support for Israel and because of the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Demonstrations by Islamic hard-liners, students, housewives and taxi drivers have been staged every day this month and nearly 10,000 protesters turned out yesterday, some holding banners that read “Bush is a terrorist!” and “You’re not welcome here!”

Bush was unruffled. “People protest, that’s a good sign,” he said. “It’s a sign of a healthy society.”

Countering arguments about his goals in the Middle East, Bush said that “to say spreading democracy is anti-religious – it’s the opposite of that. Democracy means you can worship any way you choose, freely.”

Yudhoyono said any long-term solution in Iraq should involve a national reconciliation, the strengthening of Iraq’s government and the involvement of other countries. “We have to combine all those three solutions before actually the United States can determine what the possible policies” should be for withdrawal from Iraq, he said.

Bush’s visit was limited to about six hours in the hill town of Bogor, south of Jakarta. Thousands of police and rifle-carrying soldiers patrolled the streets near the presidential palace.

Before an elegant dinner, Bush and his wife, Laura, stopped by a mock classroom in a tent on the palace grounds to showcase U.S. aid for Indonesia’s education programs. Chatting with youngsters, Bush was asked about his favorite hobby as a child.

“Baseball. I liked baseball. That was my hobby – sports,” he said, before reaching for a more inspirational answer. “The best thing I did was to learn how to read.”

Bush returns home to a growing debate about the war, now in its fourth year and with a U.S. death toll of more than 2,860. McCain has called for sending in 20,000 more U.S. troops to curb rising sectarian violence. Bush noted that Pace, the Joint Chiefs chairman, was at work on a thorough review of options for Iraq.

According to senior officials on Pace’s staff, the general has asked the group to look at what is going right or wrong in the military conduct of the entire global war on terror and what options are available to make progress.

Indonesia has suffered a string of terrorist attacks against Western interests since 2002, including nightclub and restaurant bombings on the resort island of Bali and blasts at the Australian Embassy and the J.W. Marriott Hotel in the capital.