By Steve Holland 27 minutes ago
President George W. Bush set Wednesday for his Iraq speech and worked out final details on Monday on a new war strategy expected to include sending up to 20,000 more U.S. troops over Democrats' objections.
The White House said Bush would address Americans on his new Iraq plan on Wednesday at 9 p.m. EST.
Seeking to salvage the U.S. mission in an unpopular war that has lasted nearly four years, Bush's new plan is expected to include dispatching up to 20,000 more troops and setting "benchmarks" for the Iraqi government to meet aimed at easing sectarian violence and stabilizing the country.
It is also expected to contain a jobs program with the goal of putting Iraqis back to work. Its cost was unclear but will likely be in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
The plan seemed to be building on what the Bush administration has already sought to do in Iraq rather than a dramatic shift of course, including a pullback of U.S. forces, recommended by the bipartisan Iraq Study Group last month.
Many of Bush's proposals will contain funding that will have to be approved by the U.S. Congress. That could set up a collision course with the new Democratic leadership in Congress, which says sending more troops to Iraq is an escalation of the war and that it is time to start bringing forces home.
"I think there should be an overarching goal for our redeployment" from Iraq, said Missouri Democratic Rep. Ike Skelton (news, bio, voting record), incoming chairman of the House of Representatives' Armed Services Committee.
Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy (news, bio, voting record) questioned whether Congress would support funding for a troop increase.
"Any request for additional troops is going to have to be accompanied by a very, very strong justification and in fact a detailed plan," on the purpose of the troop increase, he said.
Underlining the challenge facing Bush and Iraq's U.S.-backed government, gunmen on Monday ambushed a bus carrying workers to Baghdad airport in the latest occurrence of sectarian violence that is killing hundreds of Iraqis a week.
A hospital source said 15 bodies and 15 wounded people had been brought to the hospital after the attack in the Sunni Arab neighborhood of Amriya in western Baghdad. Police and an Interior Ministry source said four were killed and nine wounded.
The attack came two days after Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki announced a major security plan for Baghdad, vowing to crush illegal armed groups "regardless of sect or politics" -- suggesting he may be ready to tackle militias loyal to his fellow Shi'ites, as demanded by Washington and the once dominant Sunni minority.
U.S. officials say the "benchmarks" to be outlined by Bush on Wednesday are aimed at prompting Maliki's government to act to bring the warring groups into a political reconciliation.
REPUBLICANS ALSO CAUTIOUS
Many of Bush's fellow Republicans also were reacting cautiously to prospects of a troop increase.
"I have to study more of it," said Virginia Sen. John Warner (news, bio, voting record), a top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, who was briefed by Bush last Friday and was headed back to the White House on Monday.
But a troop increase had some backers in Congress. South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham (news, bio, voting record) and the self-styled "independent Democrat" Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut urged Bush to send more troops.
"For far too long we have not had enough troops in Iraq to provide security. It is time to correct that mistake," they wrote in a letter to Bush.
Without saying what Bush will announce, White House spokesman Tony Snow gave no sign that the president was being swayed by the Democratic opposition.
"The president will announce a way forward that is designed to lead to victory in Iraq," he said.
Bush has already dismissed many of the main recommendations of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, whose report last month called for a pullback of most combat forces by early 2008 and direct talks with Iran and Syria.
In the latest move in a shake-up of his Iraq team ahead of Wednesday's announcement, the White House said Bush would nominate the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, to represent Washington at the United Nations and replace him with Ryan Crocker, currently U.S. ambassador to Pakistan.
(Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell and Matt Spetalnick in Washngton; Aseel Kami in Baghdad)