Bush defends embattled war policy

US president refuses to set timetable for withdrawing US forces.

bush with troops 298 (photo credit: AP)
bush with troops 298
(photo credit: AP)
US President George W. Bush, facing growing doubts about his war strategy, said Wednesday that Iraqi troops are increasingly taking the lead in battle but that "this will take time and patience." He refused to set a timetable for withdrawing US forces. Bush said the US military presence in Iraq is set to change, by making fewer patrols and convoys, moving out of Iraqi cities and focusing more on specialized operations aimed at high-value terrorist targets. "As Iraqi forces gain experience and the political process advances, we will be able to decrease our troop level in Iraq without losing our capability to defeat the terrorists," Bush told a supportive audience at the US Naval Academy. "These decisions about troop levels will be driven by the conditions on the ground in Iraq and the good judgment of our commanders, not by artificial timetables set by politicians in Washington." Bush's emphasis on the readiness of Iraqi security forces came at a time when continued violence in Iraq and the death of more than 2,000 US troops have contributed to a sharp drop in the president's popularity. Even before Bush finished speaking, Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid issued a statement claiming that Bush "recycled his tired rhetoric of 'stay the course' and once again missed an opportunity to lay out a real strategy for success in Iraq that will bring our troops safely home." The senator charged that Bush failed to meet a call by the Senate to tell Americans the administration's strategy for success in Iraq. With lawmakers and others calling for a more sober assessment of the situation in Iraq, Bush acknowledged setbacks in the training of Iraqi forces. He recalled a time when Iraqi soldiers ran from battle, and said the United States has learned from early mistakes in how Iraqis were trained by making several changes. "Some critics continue to assert that we have no plan in Iraq except to `stay the course,"' Bush said. "If by `stay the course' they mean we will not allow the terrorists to break our will, they're right. If by `stay the course' they mean we will not permit al Qaida to turn Iraq into what Afghanistan was under the Taliban, a safe haven for terrorists and a launching pad for attacks on America, they're right as well. If by `stay the course' they mean that we're not learning from our experience or adjusting our tactics to meet the challenges on the ground, then they're flat wrong." He did not say that the terrorists now in Iraq had anything to do with the 2001 attacks, but he powerfully linked the two, saying they "share the same ideology." Bush said many Iraqi forces have made real gains over the past year. "As the Iraqi forces grow more capable, they are increasingly taking the lead in the fight against the terrorists," Bush said. "Our goal is to train enough Iraqi forces so they can carry the fight against the terrorists." Bush's speech did not break new ground or present a new strategy. Instead, it was intended to bring together in one place the administration's arguments for the war and explain existing strategy on a military, economic and political track. The president's address was accompanied by the release of a 35-page White House document titled "National Strategy for Victory in Iraq." "Americans should have a clear understanding of this strategy," Bush said. He said the document was an unclassified version of the strategy that was being pursued in Iraq. Bush said that Iraqis are stepping forward to provide security for their embattled country, torn by suicide bombings, kidnappings and other violence. "Iraqi forces have made real progress," the president said. "We will stay as long as necessary to complete the mission. If our military leaders there tell us we need more troops, I will send them." He said that more than 120 army and police combat battalions are ready to fight on their own, while 80 other Iraqi battalions are fighting side by side with coalition forces. "They're helping to turn the tide in the struggle in freedom's favor," the president said. Turning to criticism at home, Bush said, "Some are calling for a deadline for withdrawal. The many advocating an artificial timetable for withdrawing are sincere. But I believe they're sincerely wrong. "Pulling our troops out before they achieve their purpose is not a plan for victory. ... To all who wear the uniform, I make you this pledge, America will not run in the face of car bombers and assassins so long as I am your commander in chief," Bush declared. Sixty-two percent of Americans, in an AP-Ipsos poll taken in November, said they disapproved of Bush's Iraq policy. Thirty-seven percent approved of his policy - down from 43 percent in May. The president's overall job approval rating is at 37 percent, the lowest level of his presidency. There are about 160,000 US troops in Iraq. The Pentagon has not committed to any specific withdrawal of US forces next year beyond the announced plan to pull back 28,000 troops that were added this fall for extra security during the election.