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Rejecting calls to leave Iraq, President George W. Bush is ordering gradual US troop reductions from their highest level of the war and says more forces can come home as progress is made. At the same time, he says Iraq needs "an enduring relationship with America."
In remarks prepared for a Thursday night address televised from his presidential Oval Office, Bush presented his strategy for reducing US 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."
With no dramatic change in course, Bush's decision sets the stage for a fiery political debate in Congress and in the 2008 presidential campaign. Democrats said Bush's approach was unacceptable.
Sen. Jack Reed, a former Army Ranger who delivered the Democratic response to Bush's speech, said that "once again, the president failed to provide either a plan to successfully end the war or a convincing rationale to continue it."
Reed said Democrats would work to "profoundly change our military involvement in Iraq."
Bush approved recommendations of Gen. David Petraeus, the top US commander in Iraq, to withdraw five combat brigades - at least 21,500 troopers - and an undetermined number of support troops by July. The reductions represented only a slight hastening of the originally scheduled end of the troop increase announced in January.
The White House said 5,700 troops would be home by the end of the year.
Bush's speech was the latest turning point in a 4Â½-year-old war marred by miscalculations, surprises and setbacks.
Almost since the fall of Baghdad, in April 2003, US commanders and administration officials in Washington mistakenly believed they were on track to winding down US involvement and handing off to the Iraqis. Instead, the insurgency intervened and the reality of a country in chaos conspired to deepen the US commitment.
Bush said the US 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 - to leave about 130,000 US soldiers in Iraq to continue fighting - bridges the desires of people who want to bring troops home and those who believe that success in Iraq is essential to US 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 who want deadlines for withdrawals.
"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 Rep. Nancy Pelosi, Democratic speaker of the House of Representatives. "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 force an end to the war. So they are hoping to win Republican support with legislation to limit the mission of US forces to training Iraq's military and police, protecting US assets and fighting terrorists.
Speaking of America's frustration with the protracted 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."
"Whatever political party you belong to, whatever your position on Iraq, we should be able to agree that America has a vital interest in preventing chaos and providing hope in the Middle East," the president said.
He added, "Let us come together on a policy of strength in the Middle East."
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 largely track a comparable assessment in July, the White House said. The earlier report said the Iraqi government had made satisfactory gains toward eight benchmarks, unsatisfactory marks on eight and mixed results on the rest. A senior administration official said Thursday that only one of the benchmarks has moved from unsatisfactory to satisfactory: enacting and implementing legislation to allow former lower-ranking members of hanged President Saddam Hussein's Baath Party to hold government positions.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the report had not been made public, pointed to the tentative Aug. 26 power-sharing agreement among leading Iraqi politicians that outlined major terms on several issues, including changes in a law that prevented many former Baath Party members from holding government jobs and elected office.
"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's claims of security progress were jarred by the assassination of a Sunni sheik who revolted against al-Qaida and fought alongside Americans.
Abdul-Sattar Abu Risha, the most prominent figure in a US-backed revolt of Sunni sheiks against al-Qaida in Iraq, was killed Thursday by a bomb, dramatizing the danger faced by people who cooperate with coalition forces.
People in the United States overwhelmingly disapprove of Bush's handling of the war, which has claimed the lives of more than 3,700 US troops, tens of thousands of Iraqis, mainly civilians, and cost about one-half trillion dollars. His approval rating - both for his handling of Iraq and for his overall performance - stood at 33 percent in an Associated Press-Ipsos poll released Thursday.
About 168,000 US troops are in Iraq now. Bush's order is expected to bring that number to around 132,000, about where it was when he announced a major buildup on Jan. 10.