President Bush, facing growing doubts about his war strategy, said Wednesday that Iraqi troops are increasingly taking the lead in battle but that “this will take time and patience.” He refused to set a timetable for withdrawing U.S. forces.
Bush said the U.S. military presence in Iraq is set to change, by making fewer patrols and convoys, moving out of Iraqi cities and focusing more on specialized operations aimed at high-value terrorist targets.
“As Iraqi forces gain experience and the political process advances, we will be able to decrease our troop level in Iraq without losing our capability to defeat the terrorists,” Bush told a supportive audience at the U.S. Naval Academy. “These decisions about troop levels will be driven by the conditions on the ground in Iraq and the good judgment of our commanders, not by artificial timetables set by politicians in Washington.”
Bush’s emphasis on the readiness of Iraqi security forces came at a time when continued violence in Iraq and the death of more than 2,000 U.S. troops have contributed to a sharp drop in the president’s popularity.
Even before Bush finished speaking, Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid issued a statement claiming that Bush “recycled his tired rhetoric of ‘stay the course’ and once again missed an opportunity to lay out a real strategy for success in Iraq that will bring our troops safely home.”
House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi embraced a call by a prominent defense hawk in her party to immediately begin a withdrawal. Two weeks ago, Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., set off a firestorm when he said a complete pullout should be achieved in six months.
“The status quo is not working,” Pelosi said Wednesday.
“There needs to be a full-court press of information available” to Congress and the public, agreed Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee.
With lawmakers and others calling for a more sober assessment of the situation in Iraq, Bush acknowledged setbacks in the training of Iraqi forces. He recalled a time when Iraqi soldiers ran from battle, and said the United States has made several changes reflecting lessons learned from early mistakes in how Iraqis were trained.
“Some critics continue to assert that we have no plan in Iraq except to ‘stay the course,”’ Bush said. “If by ‘stay the course’ they mean we will not allow the terrorists to break our will, they’re right. If by ‘stay the course’ they mean we will not permit al-Qaida to turn Iraq into what Afghanistan was under the Taliban, a safe haven for terrorists and a launching pad for attacks on America, they’re right as well. If by ‘stay the course’ they mean that we’re not learning from our experience or adjusting our tactics to meet the challenges on the ground, then they’re flat wrong.”
He did not say that the terrorists now in Iraq had anything to do with the 2001 terror attacks in the United States, but he powerfully linked the two, saying they “share the same ideology.”
Bush said many Iraqi forces have made real gains over the past year.
“As the Iraqi forces grow more capable, they are increasingly taking the lead in the fight against the terrorists,” Bush said. “Our goal is to train enough Iraqi forces so they can carry the fight against the terrorists.”
Bush’s speech did not break new ground or present a new strategy. Instead, it was intended to bring together in one place the administration’s arguments for the war and explain existing strategy on a military, economic and political track. The president’s address was accompanied by the release of a 35-page White House document titled “National Strategy for Victory in Iraq.”
“Americans should have a clear understanding of this strategy,” Bush said. He said the document was an unclassified version of the strategy that was being pursued in Iraq.
Bush said that Iraqis are stepping forward to provide security for their embattled country, torn by suicide bombings, kidnappings and other violence. “Iraqi forces have made real progress,” the president said. “We will stay as long as necessary to complete the mission. If our military leaders there tell us we need more troops, I will send them.”
He said that more than 120 army and police combat battalions are already in the fight against insurgents, and that 80 of those battalions are fighting side by side with coalition forces and 40 are taking the lead in the fight.
“They’re helping to turn the tide in the struggle in freedom’s favor,” the president said.
Calls for withdrawal timetable ‘sincerely wrong’
Turning to criticism at home, Bush said, “Some are calling for a deadline for withdrawal. The many advocating an artificial timetable for withdrawing are sincere. But I believe they’re sincerely wrong. Pulling our troops out before they achieve their purpose is not a plan for victory.”
“To all who wear the uniform, I make you this pledge: America will not run in the face of car bombers and assassins so long as I am your commander in chief,” Bush declared.
The 35-page fighting strategy released Wednesday maintains increasing numbers of Iraqi troops have been equipped and trained, a democratic government is being forged, Iraq’s economy is being rebuilt and U.S. military and civilian presence will change as conditions improve.
“We expect, but cannot guarantee that our force posture will change over the next year, as the political process advances and Iraqi security forces grow and gain experience,” it said. “While our military presence may become less visible, it will remain lethal and decisive, able to confront the enemy wherever it may organize.”
First Lady hopes for quick resolution
Bush’s wife, Laura, said earlier Wednesday she “absolutely” would like to see an acceptable resolution there. “We want our troops to be able to come home as soon as they possibly can,” she said during an appearance on ABC’s “Good Morning America” while giving a White House Christmas tour.
“It’s really remarkable how far they’ve come,” she said, “but I really feel very, very encouraged that we’re going to see a very great ending when we see a really free Iraq right in the heart of the Middle East.”
Sixty-two percent of Americans, in an AP-Ipsos poll taken in November, said they disapproved of Bush’s Iraq policy. Thirty-seven percent approved of his policy — down from 43 percent in May. The president’s overall job approval rating is at 37 percent, the lowest level of his presidency.
There are about 160,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. The Pentagon has not committed to any specific drawdown of U.S. forces next year beyond the announced plan to pull back 28,000 troops that were added this fall for extra security during the election.