Bush calls for gradual withdrawal from Iraq

New ‘return on success’ policy buys him time to continue strategy.

PRESIDENT George W. Bush has embraced modest cuts in US forces from Iraq but ruled out any full withdrawal in the near future, speaking instead of an “enduring” presence in the country.

In a nationwide address on Thursday, he sought to regain the initiative in the battle with Capitol Hill over Iraq – by convincing Americans that the military effort was making progress.

“The principle guiding my decisions on troop levels in Iraq is ‘return on success’,” he said in a 17-minute speech from the Oval Room, his eighth prime-time address since the invasion in 2003.

“The more successful we are, the more American troops can return home.” His speech announcing that some 21,000 troops would be home by the middle of next year is the culmination of a week of carefully choreographed events that included his surprise trip to Iraq and the testimony of his top commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, and seemed to give him the upper hand.

It won him a brief political respite to pursue his current war strategy into the last stretch of his presidency.

And it left the Democrats even further behind after months of false starts and dead ends as they tried to force him to change course.

“He wanted to frame this week about a choice,” said Professor Peter Feaver, a former senior official on the National Security Council who helped draft the troop increase strategy last year, and has now returned to Duke University, where he is a professor.

“One choice is a withdrawal driven by progress on the ground, and it will be slower than you want. Or you can have withdrawals based on partisan politics, and the results will be faster, but the consequences more dire,” he added.

In framing the debate that way, Mr Bush appears, at least for now, to have put the Democrats on the defensive.

Democrats like the Senate Majority Leader, Mr Harry Reid, who a few weeks ago was dismissing plans for gradual drawdowns as “weak tea”, are now talking about trying to legislate slower timetables.

But other Democrats have privately expressed fears that the President is essentially leaving it to his successor to take the responsibility – and consequences – for the withdrawal of US troops.

Democrat Senator Jack Reed, giving the party’s official response to Mr Bush’s address, pledged that his colleagues in Congress would “redefine” the US mission in Iraq.

But it was still unclear how they planned to do so given that they lacked the large majorities needed to force the White House to change its Iraq policy.

Even so, it was also not lost on the White House that the goal of bringing stability to Iraq remained elusive, and it was clearly reflected in a more modest description of Mr Bush’s war aims.

For the first time in four years, he dropped the word “victory” from his speech, and replaced it with the goal of “success”.

Mr Bush will now have to play a delicate balancing act in his last 16 months in office as he tries to hold together wavering members of his Republican Party with promises of troop cuts, while still harbouring hopes of a continued US role in Iraq.

The President on Thursday firmly rejected calls to end the war, insisting that Iraq still needed US military, economic and political support after his presidency ends.

He said that 5,700 American forces would be home by the year-end, and that four brigades – or a total of at least 21,500 soldiers – would return by next July, along with an undetermined number of support forces.

When the cuts are complete, about 132,000 American soldiers will be in Iraq – about the same number before Mr Bush announced a troop surge earlier this year.

“In all we do, I will ensure that our commanders on the ground have the troops and flexibility they need to defeat the enemy,” he said.

Responding to media queries, Singapore’s Foreign Ministry spokesman said yesterday that Singapore was encouraged by Mr Bush’s analysis of the situation in Iraq.

“A precipitate American disengagement from Iraq will be profoundly destabilising to Iraq and the region,” the spokesman added.

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