- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 13, 2007

President Bush, eight months after calling for a troop surge to tamp down violence in Iraq, tonight will outline his goals for withdrawing U.S. troops from the war-torn country.

Mr. Bush is expected to follow the recommendation of his top general in Iraq and call for drawing down forces by upward of 30,000 troops by July, or about 20 percent of 160,000 troops there, in the 9 p.m. EDT Oval Office address.

The 18-minute speech will outline the difficulties ahead and echo much of the Capitol Hill testimony given by Army Gen. David H. Petraeus and Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker earlier this week.

A Rasmussen poll released today found 48 percent approved of Gen. Petraeus’ plan, with 38 percent opposed and 18 percent undecided.

“We’re in a completely different political world now than we were [eight months ago],” said Peter Wehner, who left the White House more than a month ago after serving six years as a senior strategist for the president.

Mr. Wehner recalled that after the president’s “surge” speech on Jan. 10, the White House “was listing and in danger of capsizing.”

“The speech just didn’t convince people, and Republicans were making a lot of unhappy noises,” Mr. Wehner said. “But we got through it. I’m not sure exactly how, except for the president’s fortitude, and the Republicans on the Hill were willing to give us one last chance.”

Critical Republican senators who in recent weeks had signaled they might break ranks with the White House said this week that Gen. Petraeus and Mr. Crocker had convinced them the U.S. should not pull all of its troops out of Iraq too quickly.

However, Democrats say Mr. Bush is simply returning to the pre-surge troop level and that U.S. troops remain trapped in a civil war as Iraq’s government flounders.

“The American people long ago lost faith in the president’s leadership of the war in Iraq because his rhetoric has never accepted the reality on the ground,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California.

Gen. Petraeus said the U.S. can reduce its forces to about 130,000 by July without endangering security gains that the administration predicts will lead to political progress among the ethnic and religious groups fighting to control Iraq.

“We think Americans have had a chance to listen to the people who understand what progress we’re seeing in Iraq and the success our troops are having,” said White House spokesman Tony Fratto.

“Obviously, there is still a lot of work to do, and Americans understand that, and that’s frustrating for many of us,” Mr. Fratto said.

The president has gotten a bump in the polls this week, although he and the war remain unpopular.

An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll of 1,002 respondents found an 8-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, versus 22 percent in July.

The president’s approval rating also rose slightly, from 31 percent to 33 percent.

“The difference now is that facts on the ground are working in [the Bush administration’s] favor, not against them,” Mr. Wehner said. “I’m sure that spirits are lifted.”

Democrats, however, continue to say they will work to bring more U.S. troops home faster. Mrs. Pelosi this week said Gen. Petraeus’ plan amounts to “a 10-year or more commitment for a long-term occupation of Iraq.”

Democrats have assigned Sen. Jack Reed, Rhode Island Democrat, to respond to Mr. Bush’s speech tonight.

Also today, a prominent Sunni Iraqi sheik who had allied with U.S. forces and was photographed with Mr. Bush at a meeting in Iraq’s Anbar province last week, was killed by a roadside bomb.

But Sheik Jubeir Rashid, a member of the Anbar Salvation Council, which was founded by the now-deceased Abdul-Sattar Abu Risha, vowed that the Sunni sheiks would continue to fight with the U.S. against al Qaeda terrorists.

“It is a major blow to the council, but we are determined to strike back and continue our work,” Sheik Rashid told the Associated Press. “Such an attack was expected, but it will not deter us.”

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