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."
The net effect of the announced reductions will be to return the overall force in Iraq to close to where it was at the beginning of the year. The shift will start this month when a Marine expeditionary unit leaves Anbar province without being replaced. An Army brigade will leave Iraq in mid-December. Four other brigades and two Marine battalions will then be pulled out by mid-July, about one month earlier than the last of the "surge" troops would have left anyway under current deployment rules.
Neither Petraeus nor White House aides would say how many troops that would involve, but typical force sizes for such units would add up to about 21,700, about the same number Bush initially announced in January that he was sending to Iraq. Petraeus and Bush made no commitments to pulling out another 8,000 support troops who later became part of the buildup, although officials said at least some of them probably would come home, too.
The president's address came amid a fierce national debate punctuated by new television ads. A group called Freedom's Watch, run by former Bush aides, launched a new commercial yesterday assailing the antiwar MoveOn.org for an attack on Petraeus, calling it "despicable" and wrong. "America and the forces of freedom are winning," the ad said. "MoveOn is losing."
While Bush reached out to Democrats last night, his real targets were congressional Republicans, who despite doubts about the war have stood with him on key votes this year and can sustain any veto. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said the president's withdrawal of some forces "meets a demand that many of my members have been looking for" and pronounced himself "very optimistic" that this would ease concerns on the Republican side. "We've turned the corner on Iraq," McConnell said.
Other Republicans were not convinced. "If the Iraqis fail to take appropriate action to accomplish political settlement within their country, the United States should consider dramatically accelerating its disengagement," said Rep. Phil English (Pa.), a moderate who has so far stuck with the president.
The White House played down the updated report it will send Congress today on progress toward the 18 benchmarks. An interim report in July concluded that Iraq had made "satisfactory" progress toward eight goals. Sources familiar with the new report said yesterday that it will declare satisfactory progress in a ninth category -- a law allowing low-level members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party back into the government.
The president's Oval Office speech came hours after a severe blow to his strategy on the ground in Iraq. The Sunni tribal leader who led the revolt against al-Qaeda extremists in Anbar province was killed by a bomb. Abdul Sattar Abu Risha, known as the father of the "Anbar Awakening," sat next to Bush during his visit to Iraq just 10 days ago, and the success he helped inspire in Anbar has been a major selling point for Petraeus and Bush.
Abu Risha had deeply impressed Bush during their meeting. "Mr. President, we are allies with you here in Iraq against al-Qaeda and Iran," he told Bush, according to a source who was there. "We are ready to fight with you against terrorists here, and if you want, also in Afghanistan."
Military and administration officials sought to put the best face on the blow, with one emphasizing that the Anbar movement was not "one guy deep." Petraeus said there is "a sufficient, beyond critical mass" of leaders in the Euphrates Valley to take Sattar's place. "This is not going to intimidate the sheiks," he said. "I think it will enrage them." But he acknowledged the role Sattar had played as the person who almost single-handedly built the movement. "He had reached out to other [Sunni] groups" even as he "reached across ethno-sectarian divides."
In an interview, Petraeus offered clues to secret planning that he did not mention during his congressional testimony. He described Iraq as a quilt in which secure "patches" will be added gradually until they fill the country and can finally be stitched together by June 2009. "Then you have a sustainable system," he said. "Then you have an Iraq."
A map prepared to illustrate the concept showed Iraq today as a blank space with several discrete "patches" in Anbar and in the northern and southern parts of the country. On a second map labeled "Intermediate Term. NLT [No Later Than] June 2009," the entire country was covered with patches. An Iraqi national flag covered a third, undated map, signaling when Iraq would be entirely in charge of its own fate.