- The Washington Times - Friday, August 1, 2008

President Bush on Thursday said that the surge of 30,000 troops to Iraq that he initiated early last year is now over and has achieved significant gains, and he held out the prospect of announcing further withdrawals in about a month.

The president said that Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, will soon make recommendations on future troop levels, which he said will include “further reductions in our combat forces as conditions permit.”

Mr. Bush also announced that starting Friday, U.S. troops deployed to Iraq will serve 12-month tours instead of extended 15-month tours.

All five brigades of surge troops returned home from Iraq in July, a month that saw violence drop to “its lowest level since the spring of 2004,” Mr. Bush said. Pentagon numbers indicated that July’s toll of 11 U.S. troops killed in Iraq was actually the lowest monthly toll of the entire war.

Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates agreed with Mr. Bush’s assessment, saying, “There is a real possibility of some additional drawdowns.”

”The situation has improved dramatically,” he said at a Pentagon news conference, although he deferred to Gen. Petraeus on when more troops might come out.

A U.S. military source in Iraq with knowledge of Gen. Petraeus’ plans said he will likely deliver his advice on troop levels at the end of August or in early September. Currently, there are about 140,000 U.S. troops in Iraq.

The Iraq war, which has dominated Mr. Bush’s presidency since the 2003 U.S. invasion and damaged his credibility domestically and internationally, now looks as if it could become a long-term success in the president’s legacy.

Yet significant obstacles remain on Iraq, and numerous other legacy-building objectives sought this year by the Bush administration appear to be slipping from the president’s reach.

On Iraq, the administration continues what have become frustrating negotiations with the increasingly confident Iraqi government over an agreement to allow U.S. forces to remain in the country beyond the end of 2008, when United Nations authority for the U.S. presence expires.

Mr. Bush said the U.S. is “making progress” in the talks over what is called a “strategic framework agreement.”

In Afghanistan, the NATO-led force has suffered mounting casualties even while Iraq violence has declined.

“We clearly are looking at an Afghanistan, where results are mixed. The challenges are certainly significant. And we’d like to get additional troops there as soon as we could,” Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at the Pentagon press conference with Mr. Gates.

In other foreign policy matters, the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks jump-started late last year by the Bush administration are in danger of being derailed by the resignation of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, which he announced Wednesday.

In addition, the president faces a looming challenge on North Korea, which has made virtually no progress toward showing that it means to allow verification of its denuclearization efforts.

Mr. Bush in late June notified Congress of his intent to remove Pyongyang from the list of state sponsors of terrorism, and the 45-day notification period ends Aug. 11, the day that the president leaves China after attending the Olympics.

The White House says that the end of the 45-day period is not a deadline, and that if North Korea does not make progress toward verification by that point, the U.S. can still wait for movement from Pyongyang beyond that time.

“The window for doing this remains open,” said Dennis Wilder, senior director for Asian affairs at the National Security Council.

Iran, meanwhile, continues to defy demands from the U.S. and the international community that it cease enriching uranium, which can be used to make nuclear weapons.

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