WASHINGTON — President Bush said Thursday that Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, will "have all the time he needs" to decide how and when to reduce American forces after the additional troops that were sent to Iraq last year are withdrawn by the end of July.
A resolute, sometimes defiant Bush gave a status report on Iraq to members of veterans organizations at the White House, saying that the American troop "surge" has been a success.
"Fifteen months ago, America and the Iraqi government were on the defensive," the president said. "Today, we have the initiative."
His message alternated between an insistence that although the mission in Iraq is going well, the country needs a strong American presence and a promise to cut troops and provide more time for them at home.
The withdrawal of the additional brigades, scheduled to be completed by July 31, will drop the troop level back down to about 140,000, or about 8,000 more than it was when the spring 2007 buildup began.
Bush said that Army combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan will be cut to12 months, instead of the current 15 months, beginning with deployments made after Aug. 1. He also pledged that Army units will have at least a year at home for every year in the field.
Bush's address comes after two days of congressional testimony by Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Iraq, and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker. Members of Congress from both parties made it clear that they're increasingly frustrated by the war, which has claimed more than 4,000 American lives over the past five years.
Lawmakers sent strong messages to the administration this week that they'll engage in a tough, even harsh debate over war funding next month.
But the president indicated that he's ready for a fight. Like Petraeus and Crocker, he said that sending more U.S. soldiers to Iraq has helped stabilize the country.
The president said the surge has helped put al Qaida "on the defensive in Iraq, and we're now working to deliver a crippling blow."
Fifteen months ago, Bush said, "Americans were worried about the prospect of failure in Iraq. Today, thanks to the surge, we've renewed and revived the prospect of success."
As a result, Bush announced, he accepted the recommendations of his military advisers to reduce the number of U.S. combat brigades in Iraq by 25 percent by the end of July.
"Beyond that," the president said, "General Petraeus says he'll need time to consolidate his forces and assess how this reduced American presence will affect conditions on the ground before making measured recommendations on further reductions."
Don't call this a pause, Bush warned.
"That's misleading," he said, "because none of our operations in Iraq will be on hold. Instead, we will use the months ahead to take advantage of the opportunities created by the surge and continue operations across the board."
The Bush speech, though, was filled with reminders of the difficult political situation he faces at home.
It was notable that Bush spoke not in prime time, but in late morning. White House spokeswoman Dana Perino maintained, "We're not asking for network time ... and for those networks who want to cover it, then that will be great, barring any sort of, you know, Hollywood scandal."
Democrats have warned they'd try to put limits on the $102 billion in war funding that's expected to be debated in Congress next month. They've also suggested that they could use the bill to help boost the economy by including money for transportation projects and unemployment and food-stamp benefits.
Bush used the speech to remind Congress that he still sees Iraq as a noble, successful cause.
"Members of Congress must pass a bill that provides our troops the resources they need and does not tie the hands of our commanders or impose artificial timelines for withdrawal," he said. "This bill also much be fiscally responsible."
It's highly unlikely that Congress will try to attach any withdrawal timetables, but if the legislation doesn't meet Bush's requirements, he said, "I'll veto it."
He also took aim at critics this week who've told Petraeus and Crocker that the war is costing too much — an estimated $500 billion so far.
"There's no doubt that the costs of this war have been high," Bush said. "But during other major conflicts in our history, the relative cost has been even higher."
He cited the Cold War, when the Pentagon budget was a bigger share of the gross domestic product.
"Today," Bush said, "we face an enemy that is not only expansionist in its aims but has actually attacked our homeland and intends to do so again."
McClatchy Newspapers 2008