Iraq Troop Levels to Remain Steady Until After Bush Leaves Office

By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 9, 2008

President Bush will announce today that the number of U.S. combat brigades in Iraq will remain steady until after he leaves office, deferring any further decisions about troop withdrawals to his successor, according to a copy of his speech released by the White House.

At the same time, Bush will preside over further increases in the number of U.S. troops fighting the resurgent Taliban militia in Afghanistan, including a fresh Marine battalion in November and an additional Army brigade in January.

The new plans are likely to represent Bush's last major decision on the deployment of U.S. troops in the two wars that have come to define his presidency. The plans also mean that either Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) or Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) will have to cope with decisions on wartime troop levels immediately after taking office Jan. 20.

Bush's plans, which were first recommended last week by the Pentagon, effectively would shift a similar number of combat troops from an improving situation in Iraq to a worsening conflict in Afghanistan, where the increasing death toll among foreign troops has surpassed those in Iraq in recent months.

In his speech this morning, Bush will praise significant progress in Iraq while acknowledging that "huge challenges in Afghanistan remain," according to the White House.

"For all the good work we have done in that country, it is clear we must do even more," Bush says in his prepared remarks, to be delivered at the National Defense University in Washington. "As we learned in Iraq, the best way to restore the confidence of the people is to restore basic security -- and that requires more troops."

Bush will also argue that his plans for a continued drawdown of troops and support personnel from Iraq underscores the dramatic reduction in violence there, which he credits to a rapid increase in U.S. troops that began in early 2007. In addition to the Army combat brigade in February, the administration plans to withdraw an 1,100-member Marine battalion and 3,400 support troops from Iraq over the next several months.

"Here is the bottom line: While the enemy in Iraq is still dangerous, we have seized the offensive, and Iraqi forces are becomingly increasingly capable of leading and winning the fight," Bush says in his prepared remarks. "As a result, we have been able to carry out a policy of 'return on success' -- reducing American combat forces in Iraq as conditions on the ground continue to improve."

The announcement amounts to an endorsement of a compromise plan among military leaders, who were divided on how quickly U.S. combat troops could be safely withdrawn from Iraq. The U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David H. Petraeus, initially sought to sustain the current level of 15 Army combat brigades through June, while members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff urged a swifter reduction, senior military officials said.

Security gains in Iraq, most notably in Anbar province, Baghdad and the southern city of Basra, led Adm. Michael Mullen, the Joint Chiefs chairman, to favor cutting the force in the country to 14 combat brigades by February, which became the final Pentagon recommendation agreed to by Bush, officials said.

This year, the United States has withdrawn the five additional combat brigades that had been sent to Iraq as part of the "surge" that began in January 2007, leaving about 146,000 troops in the country. By February, the president says, a total of about 8,000 U.S. combat and support troops will be withdrawn.

The scale of U.S. troops in Iraq, along with debate over how rapidly to remove them, has been a central issue in the presidential race between Obama, who advocates a 16-month withdrawal plan, and McCain, who opposes set timetables. The administration's position has been complicated by demands from Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for a complete U.S. military withdrawal by 2011, and the two countries remain mired in negotiations over the future of U.S. forces there.

In his speech, Bush will emphasize improvement in Iraq that he describes as "virtually unimaginable" two years ago, when fighters with the al-Qaeda in Iraq and other insurgents had gained control of vast portions of the country. "Civilian deaths are down, sectarian killings are down, suicide bombings are down and normal life is returning," Bush says.

But reiterating a point that the White House has made repeatedly in recent months, Bush also warned that "progress in Iraq is still fragile and reversible."

Perhaps most striking, Bush will spend almost half of his address on Afghanistan rather than Iraq. In his remarks, he says that despite some early U.S. successes and a "quiet surge" in American forces over the past two years, from 21,000 to 31,000, "enemies of a free Afghanistan refused to give up the fight."

Bush also appears to indirectly address allegations by Afghan and United Nations officials that more than 90 civilians, including dozens of children, were killed during an Aug. 22 raid by U.S. and Afghan commandos on the village of Azizabad. U.S. officials maintain that 30 Taliban fighters, and no more than seven civilians, were killed in the operation.

"Regrettably, there will be times when our pursuit of the enemy will result in accidental civilian deaths," Bush says in his remarks. "This has been the case throughout the history of warfare, yet our nation mourns every innocent life lost."

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