Bush Tells Nation He Will Begin to Roll Back 'Surge'

By Peter Baker and Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, September 14, 2007

President Bush tried to turn a corner in the fractious debate over Iraq last night by ordering the first limited troop withdrawals since voters elected an antiwar Congress last year. But the move did little to appease Democratic leaders, who dismissed it as a token gesture masking an open-ended commitment of U.S. troops.

Bush said progress on the ground means he can pull out by next summer the additional combat forces he sent in January -- roughly 21,700 troops -- and he opened the door to further troop reductions if conditions improve. Although the president offered no forecast for how long it will take, Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, told Washington Post reporters and editors yesterday that current U.S. projections anticipate Iraq reaching nationwide "sustainable security" by June 2009.

Administration officials have said that they hope to draw down forces substantially by the time Iraq reaches such a state, transitioning to a more limited mission aimed at supporting Iraqi forces and hunting down al-Qaeda cells. Officials said Bush's decision signals the beginning of what one called a "gradual change in mission" toward turning the lead role over to the Iraqis, and away from population security, the priority adopted in January when Bush announced the "surge."

The president's upbeat assessment of the situation in Iraq during a nationally televised address last night was clouded by the killing earlier in the day of a Sunni sheik who led the turnaround of a key province in alliance with U.S. forces. While Bush stressed the positive, his staff finished work on a report it will send to Congress today concluding that Iraq is making "satisfactory" progress on nine of 18 political and security benchmarks, just one more than in July, administration sources said.

But the president said such progress is enough to justify the beginning of a modest pullout, starting with 5,700 troops by Christmas. "Now, because of the measure of success we are seeing in Iraq, we can begin seeing troops come home," he said from the Oval Office. "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."

He coined a new slogan to describe his latest strategy, "Return on Success," meaning further progress will enable further withdrawal. "The more successful we are, the more American troops can return home," he said. "And in all we do, I will ensure that our commanders on the ground have the troops and flexibility they need to defeat the enemy."

At the same time, Bush warned that substantial numbers of U.S. troops will be in Iraq for years to come. Iraqi leaders "understand that their success will require U.S. political, economic and security engagement that extends beyond my presidency," he said, although he said such a scenario "requires many fewer American troops."

The president's speech followed congressional testimony this week by Petraeus and Ryan C. Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, both of whom warned that a rapid withdrawal of U.S. forces could plunge Iraq into even greater instability. Bush's troop reductions follow a plan laid out by Petraeus. Bush said last night that he has ordered Petraeus and Crocker to give another report to Congress in March, when troop levels will be readdressed.

The president's call for critics to "come together" behind his new approach appeared to fall on deaf ears among congressional Democrats, who accused him of exaggerating the results of the troop buildup. "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," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.). "The choice is between a Democratic plan for responsible redeployment and the president's plan for an endless war in Iraq."

In the official televised Democratic response, Sen. Jack Reed (R.I.) said Bush's plan "does not amount to real change," and he vowed that Congress will "profoundly change" U.S. war policy. "Once again, the president failed to provide either a plan to successfully end the war or a convincing rationale to continue it," Reed said.

Former senator John Edwards (N.C.), a Democratic presidential candidate, staged his own rebuttal by buying two minutes of airtime on MSNBC after the speech, chastising Bush for a failed policy and his rivals in the Senate for not stopping the president. "They have the power to end this war and you expect them to use it," said Edwards, speaking into the camera in front of a flag.

But Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), one of Edwards's opponents for the nomination, sounded a pessimistic note about Congress's ability to force change over a Bush veto. "One way of ending the war would be setting a timetable," he said in a speech in Iowa a few hours before Bush's address. "We're about 15 votes short. Right now, it doesn't look like we're going to get that many votes."

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