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Bush rejects calls to end the war but says he wants gradual US troop withdrawals from Iraq
Iraq web
President Bush shakes hands with Abdul-Sattar Abu Risha, right, leader of the Anbar Salvation Council, also known as the Anbar Awakening -- an alliance of clans backing the Iraqi government and U.S. forces -- during a meeting with tribal leaders at Al-Asad Air Base in Anbar province, Iraq, in this Sept. 3, 2007 file photo. Abu Risha, the most prominent figure in a U.S.-backed revolt of Sunni sheiks against al-Qaida in Iraq, was killed Thursday, Sept. 13, 2007, by a bomb planted near his home in Anbar province, 10 days after he met with President Bush, police and tribal leaders said. Also seen at rear, from left to right: Defense Secretary Robert Gates, U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker, partially obscured behind Bush, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, rear right. Others unidentified. - photo by Associated Press
    WASHINGTON — Rejecting calls to leave Iraq, President Bush on Thursday approved gradual U.S. troop reductions from their highest level of the war and said more can return home as progress is made. At the same time he said Iraq needs ‘‘an enduring relationship with America.’’
    In remarks prepared for a prime-time address from the Oval Office, Bush offered a strategy for reducing U.S. forces. ‘‘The principle guiding my decisions on troop levels in Iraq is: return on success. The more successful we are, the more American troops can return home.’’
    But Bush said the U.S. engagement will stretch beyond his presidency, requiring military, financial and political support from Washington. He said Iraqi leaders ‘‘have asked for an enduring relationship with America.
    ‘‘And we are ready to begin building that relationship in a way that protects our interests in the region and requires many fewer American troops.’’
    Bush said his strategy — leaving about 130,000 U.S. soldiers in Iraq to continue fighting — would bridge the desires of people who want to bring troops home and those who believe that success in Iraq is essential to U.S. security.
    ‘‘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,’’ Bush said.
    That appeared unlikely, however, based on the reaction of Democratic leaders.
    ‘‘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, D-Calif. ‘‘The choice is between a Democratic plan for responsible redeployment and the president’s plan for an endless war in Iraq.’’
    Majority Democrats in Congress are unable to muster enough votes to set deadlines for ending the war. So they are hoping to win Republican support with legislation to limit the mission of U.S. forces to training Iraq’s military and police, protecting U.S. assets and fighting terrorists.
    Addressing America’s frustration with the 4 1/2-year-old-war, the president said, ‘‘Some say the gains we are making in Iraq come too late. They are mistaken. It is never too late to deal a blow to al-Qaida. It is never too late to advance freedom. And it is never too late to support our troops in a fight they can win.’’
    Bush acknowledged that Iraq’s government has failed to meet goals for political reconciliation and security. A new assessment to be released Friday by the White House will underscore that point.
    The latest conclusions mirror those in the most recent report, from July, the White House said. That earlier report said Iraq had made unsatisfactory progress on eight benchmarks and satisfactory progress on eight others; two others could not be judged.
    ‘‘Yet Iraq’s national leaders are getting some things done,’’ Bush contended. He said the Baghdad government has passed a budget and is sharing oil revenues among the provinces even though legislation has not been approved. Changes that have begun to take hold in the provinces must be followed in Baghdad, he said.
    Bush approved the recommendations of Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, to withdraw at least 21,500 combat forces and an undetermined number of support troops by July.
    The White House said 5,700 troops would be home by Christmas, but refused to pinpoint how many would return by summer.
    About 168,000 U.S. troops are in Iraq now. Bush’s order is intended to bring that number to around 132,000 — about where it was when Bush announced a major buildup last Jan. 10.
    With no dramatic change in course, Bush’s decision sets the stage for a fiery political debate in Congress and on the 2008 presidential campaign trail.

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