Bush Talks Troop Withdrawl

Thursday, September 13th 2007, 8:11 pm
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Rejecting calls to leave Iraq, President Bush on Thursday ordered gradual U.S. troop reductions from their highest level of the war and said more forces can come home as progress is made. At the same time, he said Iraq needs ``an enduring relationship with America.''

In remarks prepared for a prime-time address from the Oval Office, Bush presented his strategy for reducing U.S. forces. ``The principle guiding my decisions on troop levels in Iraq is: return on success. The more successful we are, the more American troops can return home.''

With no dramatic change in course, Bush's decision sets the stage for a fiery political debate in Congress and on the 2008 presidential campaign trail. Democrats said Bush's approach was unacceptable.

Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, a former Army Ranger who delivered the Democratic response, said that ``once again, the president failed to provide either a plan to successfully end the war or a convincing rationale to continue it.''

Reed said Democrats would work to ``profoundly change our military involvement in Iraq.''

Bush approved the recommendations of Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, to withdraw five combat brigades _ at least 21,500 forces _ and an undetermined number of support troops by July. The reductions represented only a slight hastening of the originally scheduled end of the troop increase announced in January.

The White House said 5,700 troops would be home by Christmas.

Bush's speech was the latest turning point in a 4 1/2-year-old war marred by miscalculations, surprises and setbacks.

Almost since the fall of Baghdad, in April 2003, U.S. commanders and administration officials in Washington mistakenly believed they were on track to winding down U.S. involvement and handing off to the Iraqis. Instead, the insurgency intervened and the reality of a country in chaos conspired to deepen the U.S. commitment.

Bush said the U.S. engagement will stretch beyond his presidency, requiring military, financial and political support from Washington. He said Iraqi leaders ``have asked for an enduring relationship with America.

``And we are ready to begin building that relationship in a way that protects our interests in the region and requires many fewer American troops.''

Bush said his strategy _ leaving about 130,000 U.S. soldiers in Iraq to continue fighting _ bridges the desires of people who want to bring troops home and those who believe that success in Iraq is essential to U.S. security.

``The way forward I have described tonight makes it possible, for the first time in years, for people who have been on opposite sides of this difficult debate to come together,'' Bush said.

That appeared unlikely, however, based on the reaction of Democratic leaders who want deadlines for withdrawals.

``The American people long ago lost faith in the president's leadership of the war in Iraq because his rhetoric has never matched the reality on the ground,'' said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. ``The choice is between a Democratic plan for responsible redeployment and the president's plan for an endless war in Iraq.''

Majority Democrats in Congress are unable to muster enough votes to force an end to the war. So they are hoping to win Republican support with legislation to limit the mission of U.S. forces to training Iraq's military and police, protecting U.S. assets and fighting terrorists.

Addressing America's frustration with the protracted war, the president said, ``Some say the gains we are making in Iraq come too late. They are mistaken. It is never too late to deal a blow to al-Qaida. It is never too late to advance freedom. And it is never too late to support our troops in a fight they can win.''

``Whatever political party you belong to, whatever your position on Iraq, we should be able to agree that America has a vital interest in preventing chaos and providing hope in the Middle East,'' the president said.

He added, ``Let us come together on a policy of strength in the Middle East.''

Bush acknowledged that Iraq's government has failed to meet goals for political reconciliation and security. A new assessment to be released Friday by the White House will underscore that point.

The latest conclusions mirror those in the most recent report, from July, the White House said. The first report said the Iraqi government was achieving spotty progress, with satisfactory gains toward eight benchmarks, unsatisfactory marks on eight more and mixed results on the rest.

``Yet Iraq's national leaders are getting some things done,'' Bush contended. He said the Baghdad government has passed a budget and is sharing oil revenues among the provinces even though legislation has not been approved. Changes that have begun to take hold in the provinces must be followed in Baghdad, he said.

Bush's claims of security progress were jarred by the assassination of a Sunni sheik who revolted against al-Qaida and fought alongside Americans.

Abdul-Sattar Abu Risha, the most prominent figure in a U.S.-backed revolt of Sunni sheiks against al-Qaida in Iraq, was killed Thursday by a bomb, dramatizing the danger faced by people who cooperate with coalition forces.

People in the United States overwhelmingly disapprove of Bush's handling of the war, which has claimed the lives of more than 3,700 U.S. troops and cost about a half trillion dollars. His approval rating _ both for his handling of Iraq and for his overall performance _ stood at 33 percent in an Associated Press-Ipsos poll released Thursday.

About 168,000 U.S. troops are in Iraq now. Bush's order is expected to bring that number to around 132,000 _ about where it was when Bush announced a major buildup on Jan. 10.