WASHINGTON — President Bush announced in a nationally televised address Thursday night that 5,700 U.S. troops would leave Iraq by December.
Bush formally embraced the recommendations made earlier this week by Army Gen. David Petraeus, the top commander in Iraq, to withdraw as many as 21,500 combat forces and an undetermined number of support troops by July.
That would effectively roll back the troop "surge" Bush ordered in January, while leaving more than 130,000 troops still in Iraq indefinitely — as many as were there before the surge began.
Bush asked the nation for patience, saying that more troops could return home as the situation improves on the ground, but he gave no specifics as to how many or when.
The president cast his gradual withdrawal plan as one based on a "return on success."
"The more successful we are, the more American troops can come home," Bush said from the Oval Office.
By leaving his war strategy effectively unchanged, Bush remains at odds with congressional Democrats who want to pull all U.S. combat troops out of Iraq on a rapid timetable. Their conflicting positions seem to assure that Congress and the president will continue to clash over Iraq and that the war will remain the dominant issue hanging over the 2008 presidential campaign.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in a statement earlier Thursday that Bush's plan would lead to 10 more years of U.S. war in Iraq, and she estimated the cost at $700 billion more over the next five years. That's on top of $450 billion so far.
"The president's war in Iraq has dangerously overstretched our military, left America less protected against terrorism and more vulnerable as other global threats emerge — all at the cost of nearly $1 trillion to the taxpayers," Pelosi said.
"The American people long ago lost faith in the president's leadership of the war in Iraq because his rhetoric has never matched the reality on the ground. The choice is between a Democratic plan for responsible redeployment and the president's plan for an endless war in Iraq."
Bush acknowledged that success in Iraq would require a "U.S. political, economic and security engagement that extends beyond my presidency."
Still, he maintained that his surge is working, despite several recent blue-ribbon reports concluding that the Iraqis have failed to reach significant political goals. He sought to portray his troop-withdrawal announcement as the beginning of a healing process for war-weary Americans.
"Now, because of the measure of success we are seeing in Iraq, we can begin to bring troops home," Bush said. "The way forward I have described tonight makes it possible, for the first time in years, for people who have been on opposite sides of this difficult debate to come together."
But Democratic lawmakers called Bush's move a smoke-and-mirror act that will leave a large U.S. military presence in Iraq for years to come. They point out that 30,000 troops must return home in April anyway or face having their tours in Iraq extended beyond the scheduled 15 months, although White House officials say Petraeus' plan gets them out faster.
"The 'news' will be the withdrawal of some troops, but the president will neglect to say that his plan will leave America in July 2008 where we were in January 2007," House Democratic Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland said before Bush's address. "He will also fail to mention that this withdrawal is not a change in direction or a sign of success in Iraq — it is merely bowing to the reality that there are not troops available to maintain the 'surge.'"
Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Bush's Iraq strategy "is not succeeding."
"It's not making America safer," he said. "Doing more of the same would be a disaster."
Bush acknowledged that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki's government has failed to achieve national reconciliation, the goal the surge was supposed to facilitate, but he contended that political progress in Iraq is under way from the local level up.
"The key now is to link this progress in the provinces to progress in Baghdad," Bush said. "As local politics change, so will national politics."
Bush especially noted improvements in Anbar province, where he made a surprise visit last week. His upbeat assessment came hours after an influential Sunni tribal leader in Anbar who aided U.S. efforts to turn residents against al Qaida in Iraq there was killed by a roadside bomb.
Abdul Sattar Abu Risha was a key member of the Salvation Council, a group that was credited with helping reduce violence in the area. Bush met with Risha during his stop in Anbar. Bush acknowledged Risha's death, calling it a murder that will not deter progress in the region.
"Some say the gains we are making in Iraq came too late," Bush said. "They are mistaken. It's never too late to deal a blow to al Qaida."
Bush emphasized that U.S. forces in Iraq must defeat al Qaida, but according to U.S. military officials in Iraq, most of the violence in Iraq results from a power struggle between native Sunni and Shiite Muslims, with a relatively small amount of violence caused by al Qaida in Iraq.
The White House's view conflicts with a spate of recent reports. One last week from the Government Accountability Office, the nonpartisan auditing arm of Congress, showed that Iraq has met only three of 18 benchmarks for military, political and economic reforms.
A National Intelligence Estimate report released last month shared Bush's concern that changing the U.S. military mission in Iraq could have negative consequences. But it didn't share the president's optimism about national political reconciliation in Iraq, warning that the country's government will become "more precarious" over the next six to 12 months.
The NIE report also questioned the effectiveness of the "bottom up" localized reconciliation in Iraq that Bush has touted. It warned that bolstering provincial groups — such as Sunni tribes who are fighting against al Qaida in Iraq — could hinder national reconciliation rather than help it.
Bush's address is the latest in a high-stakes, high-profile public relations blitz to get more time for his Iraq strategy from Americans and to shore up softening support of some Republican lawmakers.
But critics remained unconvinced.
"We've heard ... of progress so often before — 'Turning the Corner,' 'New Strategy,' 'Making Progress,' 'Turning Point' — that it's hard to take the latest ones seriously, to take them at face value," said Philip H. Gordon, a foreign policy analyst for the Brookings Institution, a center-left think tank.
"For that reason, we have to ... not only listen to the president's report, but to all the reports that have been out there, the cacophony of information. When you take the totality, rather than the administration report, you come out much more pessimistic about the prospects of success than when you hear the president's report."
The president's address to the nation can be read at http://www.mcclatchydc.com/whitehouse/story/19703.html
(Renee Schoof contributed.)