- The Washington Times - Friday, September 14, 2007

President Bush last night said the U.S. military’s success in Iraq has made it possible to begin withdrawing some troops but noted that future withdrawals will be based on continued success and renewed his call on Iraqi leaders to take control of their country.

“Because of the measure of success we are seeing in Iraq, we can begin seeing troops come home,” said Mr. Bush, speaking from the Oval Office to a national television audience in prime time.

The president — in his 11th national address about Iraq — said 5,700 U.S. troops would return home by Christmas. He also said that five combat brigades, out of the 20 in Iraq, would be withdrawn by next summer, without saying exactly how many troops that would be.

Mr. Bush sought to cast the current moment in Iraq as a turning point in the war, and even in U.S. history, and exhorted critics not to give up.

“Some say the gains we are making in Iraq come too late,” he said. “They are mistaken. It is never too late to deal a blow to al Qaeda. It is never too late to advance freedom. And it is never too late to support our troops in a fight they can win.”

Democrats, however, were unmoved.

“A nation eager for change in Iraq heard the president speak about his plans for the future. But once again, the president failed to provide either a plan to successfully end the war or a convincing rationale to continue it,” said Sen. Jack Reed, Rhode Island Democrat and a former U.S. Army Ranger and paratrooper.

“Democrats believe it is time to change course,” Mr. Reed said. “We have put forth a plan to responsibly and rapidly begin a reduction of our troops in Iraq.”

Mr. Bush pursued a new strategy this year when he announced a “surge” of 30,000 additional troops between January and July. The surge was intended to give Iraqi politicians “breathing space” to enact key power-sharing reforms to defuse sectarian tensions and infighting.

Yet, the Iraqi government has not passed any key provisions, although they pledged to work together to do so late last month.

“The government has not met its own legislative benchmarks — and in my meetings with Iraqi leaders, I have made it clear that they must,” Mr. Bush said. “Yet, Iraq’s national leaders are getting some things done.”

Mr. Bush said Iraqis had passed a budget, were sharing some oil revenues among local provinces and were allowing former Ba’ath Party officials to rejoin the military and government.

The president also spoke directly to the Iraqi people.

“You must demand that your leaders make the tough choices needed to achieve reconciliation,” he said. “As you do, have confidence that America does not abandon our friends, and we will not abandon you.”

Mr. Bush included a warning to Iran and Syria, telling them that their efforts to aid anti-U.S. forces and undermine the Iraqi government “must end.”

Gen. David H. Petraeus, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, told Congress this week that U.S. forces could be reduced from 20 combat brigades to 15 brigades, a decrease interpreted to mean about 30,000 troops.

It was not clear last night how many troops Mr. Bush has agreed to withdraw by next summer.

Brigades are made up of 3,500 to 5,000 soldiers. So a five-brigade withdrawal would pull 17,500 to 20,000 soldiers out of Iraq. But noncombat troops could boost that withdrawal number.

About 168,000 combat and noncombat troops are stationed in Iraq.

Mr. Bush said that under his leadership, U.S. involvement in Iraq will stretch well into 2009 and “beyond my presidency.”

The White House, backed by many intelligence reports, says that if Iraqis think the U.S. is going to pull out hastily, they will refuse to work together and begin preparing for a bloody civil war. Mr. Bush sought several times to reassure Iraqis that the U.S. would not desert them.

But Democrats insist that a continued U.S. presence will keep Iraqis from making tough decisions.

“The president’s policy has made our troops hostage to Iraqi politicians who have yet to show any willingness to make the tough decisions required to end their civil war,” said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat. “We have to change our policy now.”

However, congressional testimony this week by Gen. Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan C. Crocker appeared to sway key swing Republicans on Capitol Hill, some of whom had signaled over the summer that they might break with the White House in the fall.

Also, an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll of 1,002 respondents, released yesterday, found an eight-point swing in Mr. Bush’s favor since July on the question of his handling of the Iraq war. Thirty percent of those polled approved of Mr. Bush’s job in leading the war, compared with 22 percent in July.

The White House today is expected to release a report on how the Iraqis are doing in meeting 18 legislative benchmarks. A White House report in July found that only eight of the 18 benchmarks had been fully met, while a congressional report last week found that only three had been met.

In March, Gen. Petraeus and Mr. Crocker will return to brief Congress again.

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