WASHINGTON -- President Bush, pointing to recent security gains in Iraq, announced last night a drawdown of 5,700 U.S. forces by Christmas while calling for a long-term military presence that extends beyond his presidency.
As expected, Bush endorsed a recommendation by Gen. David Petraeus, the top commander in Iraq, for the return of about 30,000 troops by mid-July. That reduction would bring the size of the U.S. force in Iraq to about 130,000, the number on the ground before the escalation Bush ordered in January.
In his first prime-time TV address since announcing his so-called "surge" plan, Bush said the U.S. military was performing "brilliantly" in bringing security to many parts of Iraq.
"The principle guiding my decisions on troop levels in Iraq is return on success," Bush said from the Oval Office. "The more successful we are, the more American troops can return home."
However, he acknowledged that the challenge in Iraq remained "formidable."
He said the Iraqi government has yet to meet many of its own legislative benchmarks and "a great deal of work" is still needed to improve Iraq's national police.
In the Democratic response, Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, a former Army paratrooper, said Bush had "failed to provide either a plan to successfully end the war or a convincing rationale to continue it."
Bush's plan, he said, "does not amount to real change."
The president spoke of a time when "many fewer American troops" would be needed in the region but gave no timetable. Left unanswered was the question of how many more soldiers would be withdrawn after next July, when the surge troops have come home.
Bush also envisioned a shift for U.S. combat forces - away from leading Iraq troops into battle and toward less dangerous missions, including "overwatching" Iraqi forces and conducting "a more limited set of tasks," including training and counterterror operations.
Renewing his warnings about the costs of failure, Bush said a hasty withdrawal from Iraq would boost "extremists of all strains" and could lead to a "humanitarian nightmare." He said Iran would be encouraged in its efforts to gain nuclear weapons and "a key part of the global energy supply" could be in jeopardy.
Bush reached out to members of Congress in announcing the troop reduction, saying it is now "possible, for the first time in years, for people who have been on opposite sides of this difficult debate to come together."
But Democrats, and some Republicans, are likely to renew the legislative fight over withdrawal timetables and troop funding in the months ahead.
"We intend to exercise our constitutional duties and profoundly change our military involvement in Iraq," said Reed in the Democratic response, though it remains unclear whether antiwar forces can muster the votes to prevail.
Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat, said Bush's speech once again "changes the goals" for Iraq.
"There was going to have to be a drawdown anyway," Cummings said. "It's almost insulting to any informed citizen."
Democratic Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Montgomery County said Bush's speech delivered "more of the same," which he said would mean "more deaths, more billions of dollars lost, more insecurity."
Bush said he was ordering Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker, who spent two days this week answering questions from Congress, to deliver another report in March, which critics have called an attempt by Bush to play for time. March would also come after the heat of the presidential primary season, when Iraq is expected to be a central issue.
In his speech, Bush acknowledged more directly than he has before that the future course of U.S. involvement in Iraq would be determined by his successor, describing an "enduring relationship" with Iraq "that extends beyond my presidency."
The concept was reinforced by Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, who said lawmakers in both parties "understand we need to be forward deployed somewhere in the Middle East for the long term ... in order to go after al-Qaida wherever they may pop up."
Bush's strategy also means continued stress and danger for U.S. troops and their families. Petraeus, in congressional testimony this week, acknowledged that maintaining just 100,000 troops in Iraq portends a monthly death rate of at least 60 Americans and a cost of $9 billion a month.
To muster the roughly 30,000 troops needed for the surge, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates reluctantly approved last spring a 15-month deployment period for military personnel. There was no mention last night of rolling that back to 12-month tours.
Senior Army officials have said the strain on soldiers and families of 15 months in combat, with barely a year at home between deployments, is eroding soldiers' willingness to serve and cannot be sustained.
Rep. Ike Skelton, a Missouri Democrat and chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said the proposed troop reductions "do not take the necessary step of changing the mission of American forces in Iraq and getting our forces out of policing a civil war."
"I remain unconvinced that placing U.S. military forces in charge of the counterinsurgency mission in Iraq, essentially fighting an Iraqi civil war, is worth the sacrifice in American lives, treasure and the continued damage to the strategic ability of the United States to react to growing problems in other parts of the world," Skelton said in a statement.
The president's speech came days after Petraeus and Crocker told Congress that an infusion of extra troops Bush ordered in January had dampened violence in Baghdad and surrounding provinces. But it had not yet produced the political reconciliation among rival Muslim and Kurdish sects as was intended, and it was uncertain when - if ever - that would happen, the officials admitted under questioning from skeptical lawmakers.
By law, Bush must tell Congress by tomorrow about the progress in Iraq, and he will base his findings largely on the reports of Petraeus and Crocker. The testimony from Petraeus and Crocker was just the latest in a series of assessments on conditions in Iraq.
Earlier this month, the Government Accountability Office determined that the Iraqi government had met just three of 18 benchmarks for progress laid out by the government of Iraq, its prime minister and Bush.
Iraq has yet to implement de-Ba'athification legislation, pass a law on oil revenue distribution, ensure that security forces are not punishing members of rival sects or establish a system for provincial elections.
In his January speech announcing the surge, Bush said that America will "hold the Iraqi government to the benchmarks it has announced," although the vast majority have not been met.
Bush delivered last night's speech just hours after learning of the death of Abdul-Sattar Abu Risha, a Sunni tribal sheik from Anbar province who had recently aligned with the U.S. and who met with the president during a Labor Day visit.
Bush acknowledged the death in his remarks, calling the sheik "brave" and vowing that surviving Sunni leaders "can count on the continued support of the United States."
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March 17: President Bush gives Saddam Hussein 48 hours to give up power. U.S.-led invasion begins three days later.
May 1: Bush declares "major combat operations in Iraq have ended."
Dec. 13: Hussein captured while hiding in a hole near Tikrit; former dictator hanged after trial.
April: Photos surface of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib.
Oct. 6: Top U.S. arms inspector finds no evidence that Hussein's regime produced weapons of mass destruction after 1991, discounting a main justification for the war.
May 3: First democratically elected Iraqi government sworn in.
Nov. 7: Republicans lose the House and Senate in U.S. elections widely viewed as a referendum on the war.
Nov. 8: Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld resigns; former CIA Director Robert M. Gates is nominated as his successor.
Dec. 31: American deaths in the Iraq war reach 3,000.
Jan. 10: Bush commits more than 21,500 more U.S. soldiers to Iraq - a military buildup that has grown to 30,000 with support troops.
July 12: White House report required by Congress says Iraq has made satisfactory progress on eight of 18 political and security benchmarks, unsatisfactory progress on eight and that it's too early to judge on two.
[Source: Associated Press]