Bush sees success in Iraq

Military doing a brilliant job, he says

5,700 to be home soon

September 14, 2007|By David Nitkin, David Wood and Matthew Hay Brown | David Nitkin, David Wood and Matthew Hay Brown,Sun reporters

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.

FOR THE RECORD - An Associated Press "Iraq Timeline" in yesterday's editions of The Sun gave the wrong year for Republicans' losing control of Congress in elections "widely viewed as a referendum on the war." Those losses occurred in 2006, not 2005.
The Sun regrets the error.

"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 Left unanswered was the question of how many more soldiers would be withdrawn after next July, when the surge troops have come home.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.

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