President Bush said on Saturday that America's change of strategy in Iraq had sharply reduced violence and the United States was on track to complete the withdrawal of 20,000 troops by mid-year.
After talks at a base in the Kuwaiti desert with his military commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, and the U.S. ambassador in Baghdad, Ryan Crocker, Bush said security gains in Iraq "are allowing some U.S. forces to return home."
"Any additional reductions will be based on the recommendations of General Petraeus," he said. "Conditions on the ground will be those that guide his recommendations. I need to know his considered judgment to make sure that the security gains ... remain in place."
Bush said the new strategy, which involved a "surge" in troop numbers and a focus on counter-insurgency warfare, had dealt "heavy blows" to the al Qaeda network in Iraq. "Iraq is now a different place," he said. "Levels of violence are significantly reduced. Hope is returning to Baghdad."
Bush said he has made no decision on bringing more U.S. troops home from Iraq, and if his top commander does not want to go beyond the reduction of forces that’s already planned, “that’s fine with me.” He predicted a U.S. force presence in Iraq that would long outlast his presidency.
“We must do all we can to ensure that 2008 will bring even greater progress,” Bush told reporters.
He said long-term success in Iraq is vital to stability in the Mideast, and warned that the United States should not turn its back on its friends.
Bush maintained his long-held stance that a further reduction in force levels will depend on conditions in Iraq, and that he would defer to the top U.S. commander there, Gen. David Petraeus, who is scheduled to make a recommendation in March.
“My attitude is if he didn’t want to continue the drawdown, that’s fine with me,” Bush said.
War update scheduled for March
The top two American authorities in Iraq — Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker — are due to give Congress a new update on the war in March.
After their report in September, Bush announced he would withdraw some troops from Iraq by July — essentially the 30,000 sent as part of a buildup ordered a year ago — but still keep the U.S. level there at about 130,000.
The war remains deeply unpopular to the U.S. public and to Democratic leaders in Congress, who have been unable to force Bush’s hand on troop withdrawals.
U.S. commanders credit a Sunni backlash against al-Qaida in Iraq with helping reduce violence over the past six months. But devastating attacks persist even as Iraqi casualties are down by 55 percent nationwide since June 2007, according to an Associated Press count.
So far, nine of 18 Iraqi provinces have reverted from U.S. military to Iraqi security control, although the handover has gone slower than the Bush administration once hoped, mainly because of obstacles to developing sufficient Iraqi police and army forces. Anbar Province — once a hotbed of insurgency activity — is expected to revert to Iraqi control in March, a top U.S. commander said this week.
Bush said he and his top general didn’t talk about specific troop levels. Instead, Bush said they discussed the parameters for continuing to assess the situation leading into the March report, including Bush’s edict that “any position he recommends needs to be based upon success.”
“That’s what happened the last time,” he said.
“It’s that same principle that’s going to guide my decision. I made that clear to the general,” Bush said.
Bush defends troop surge
He defended his decision a year ago to order a buildup of troops to Iraq, the one that is now scheduled to essentially phase out by this summer.
“The new way forward I announced a year ago changed our approach in fundamental ways,” he said.
Bush also defended the progress made by the central government in Baghdad, which has lagged in passing legislative reforms seen as key to tamping down the sectarian violence that still plagues the country and hampers other progress.
“What they’ve gone through to where they are now is good progress,” Bush said, adding it still isn’t enough.
“I’m not making excuses for the government,” he added. “They have got more work to do.”
Bush’s comments came during an eight-day trip to the region, as he pivoted from Mideast peacemaking to the war that has defined his presidency.
Afterward, Bush gave about five minutes of thank-you remarks to cheering troops at the base.
“It’s hard work that you’re doing. But it’s necessary work,” the president told them. “There is no doubt in my mind that we will succeed. There is no doubt in my mind that when history is written, the final page will say, ‘Victory was achieved by the United States of America for the good of the world.”’
Still pushing for Mideast peace
En route to Kuwait on Friday, the United States dampened hopes for swift agreement on a Mideast peace deal, as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice cautioned against expecting a “blinding flash” of Arab backing for cooperation with Israel, their historic enemy.
Bush began the next chapter of his journey in Kuwait, the first of five Arab countries on an itinerary aimed at pressing them to support Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas in any deal he strikes with Israel. Bush landed here after two days of talks in Israel and the Palestinian-governed West Bank. Traveling with the president, Rice said, “There will be a period of time, undoubtedly, in which the two sides continue to be very far apart.”
But, she said, “There is reason to be hopeful that they can make a major move to end the conflict.”
Bush will notify Congress on Monday of his intent to sell $20 billion in weapons, including precision-guided bombs, to Saudi Arabia, moving up the announcement to coincide with the president’s arrival in Riyadh, a senior official told The Associated Press in Washington. The official announcement will kick off a 30-day review period during which Congress could try to block the sale, which has raised concern among some lawmakers.
Arriving at the airport in Kuwait, the president got a ceremonial red-carpet welcome and was presented with a bouquet of flowers. But he saw nothing like the torrent of public adulation showered on his father in a visit 15 years ago.
The tiny, oil-rich nation at the top of the Persian Gulf was invaded by Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and liberated by a U.S.-led war ordered by Bush’s father in 1991. Now, Kuwait is a major hub for U.S. troops and equipment deployed to Iraq.
At a palace surrounded by palm trees, Bush met with the emir, Sheik Sabah Al Ahmed Al Sabah. He told Bush he was delighted to have him in Kuwait. “We are equally delighted to see you working on issues that are very important to all of us here,” Sheik Sabah said. It was not clear what issues he meant.
Like other Gulf Arab nations, Kuwait is nervous about tensions between the United States and Iran, and uneasy with the rise of Tehran. Kuwaitis also fear sectarian violence in Iraq could spill over their border.