WASHINGTON — Eight months after President Bush made public a plan he hailed as the "New Way Forward" in Iraq, he's announced a new plan, this one called "Return on Success."
The new plan was reminiscent of last year's "Operation Together Forward," which called for U.S. troops to secure neighborhoods in Baghdad and hand them over to Iraqi security forces. It bore similarities to an even older plan commonly articulated with the catchphrase "as they stand up, we'll stand down."
But on Thursday, Bush declared success and said troops were coming home, despite a range of government reports that says Iraqi civilian casualties remain high and that Iraqi security forces remain incapable of taking control.
Our "success in meeting these objectives now allows us to begin bringing some of our troops home," the president said.
Largely gone from the president's speech Thursday was his January insistence that the Iraqi government meet 18 benchmarks and sort out its differences on the most divisive issues in Iraq.
In January, the talk was tough: "America will hold the Iraqi government to the benchmarks it has announced," Bush said then. "I've made it clear to the prime minister and Iraq's other leaders that America's commitment is not open-ended. If the Iraqi government does not follow through on its promises, it will lose the support of the American people — and it will lose the support of the Iraqi people. Now is the time to act."
The president was conciliatory Thursday in the face of Iraqi failure.
"The government has not met its own legislative benchmarks — and in my meetings with Iraqi leaders, I have made it clear that they must," Bush said. "Yet Iraq's national leaders are getting some things done."
Those things, administration officials told reporters before the speech, included sharing oil revenue with provincial leaders and what officials call "local reconciliation," where leaders within some provinces are forming increasingly self-sufficient governments.
That local effort could lead to national reconciliation, the president said. It was a reversal of his January forecast, when he said Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki's government would rebuild the nation by meeting the benchmarks.
"The key now is to link this progress in the provinces to progress in Baghdad. As local politics change, so will national politics," Bush said Thursday.
In January, the president predicted more U.S. casualties as the military "took the fight to the enemy," as military commanders in Iraq often described it.
Thursday night, Bush declared success and painted a rosy picture.
In Baghdad, "normal life is beginning to return," he said. In Diyala province, "local tribes are working . . . to clear out the enemy and reclaim their communities." Elsewhere, groups of "Shia extremists and Iranian-backed militants . . . are being broken up, and many of their leaders are being captured or killed."
There was no mention of a range of government reports, from a National Intelligence Estimate to a Government Accountability Office report and even the testimony this week of U.S. Iraq commander Army Gen. David Petraeus, that has said Iraqi civilian casualties remain high and that it will be years before Iraqi security forces can take control.
Other reports have stressed that Iraqis continue to flee their homes looking for safety at unprecedented rates and that Shiite militias continue to force Sunni Muslims from their homes. Baghdad residents complain that their city has become even more segregated than before the surge, divided now by hastily erected concrete walls to keep rival sects separate.
In January, Bush cited the work of several agencies and the recommendations by the Iraq Study Group, an independent critique of the war led by former Secretary of State James Baker and Lee Hamilton, a former congressman.
On Thursday, his speech was filled with references to Petraeus, whose recommendations the president said he would follow.
Bush said that 5,700 troops will be home by Christmas, reducing the force in Iraq to just below 170,000. But he didn't suggest how many troops would be left behind next July, when Petraeus' proposed withdrawal of five combat brigades is to be completed. Senior administration officials said they were mindful that last January, the president had said the surge would total 21,500 troops. It ended up being nearly 30,000.
Pentagon planners said this week that the number of troops still in Iraq next summer probably would be close to 140,000, but that that number hasn't been decided.
Some of the president's themes were the same in both speeches. He said then and now that if the U.S. left too early, Iraq would become a breeding ground for al Qaida and other extremists. He warned Iraq's neighbors not to spur violence.
And in January, he asked Americans for "more patience, sacrifice and resolve."
In Thursday's speech, he did the same.
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