CRAWFORD, Texas -- President Bush said his meeting today with national security advisers put him a step closer to making changes to U.S. strategy in Iraq, but that he will seek more advice before announcing a plan in January.
"We've got more consultation to do until I talk to the country about the plan," 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 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.
As Bush spoke, the administration was preparing for the execution of Saddam Hussein 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.
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.
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," 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.
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."
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 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, Bush and his advisers would be conducting further consultations with lawmakers.
Initially, White House advisers said Bush would announce a plan before Christmas. Then, they said it was more likely after the first of the year. Now, they say only that Bush will deliver his speech sometime between New Year's and his State of the Union address on Jan. 23.
In an action that might foreshadow an increase in troops, the Pentagon on Wednesday announced that the 2nd Brigade, 82nd Airborne Division, based at Fort Bragg, N.C., will deploy to Kuwait to serve as the reserve force early next year.
Sending more troops only increases the Iraqis' dependence on U.S. forces and allows them to delay making the painful political compromises needed to end the violence, said Larry Korb, a former assistant secretary of defense.