Bush orders halt to troop withdrawals
Cites top general's assessment that conditions in Iraq are too precarious
WASHINGTON - President Bush yesterday ordered a suspension of further troop withdrawals from Iraq and said he would not review the decision until September, in the midst of the presidential general-election campaign, all but ensuring that any decision on major cutbacks would be made by his successor.
Bush's order would end withdrawals in July, when there will be about 140,000 troops in Iraq - 10,000 more than before the surge began last year.
In adopting the recommendations of his top commander, who testified on Tuesday that conditions are too precarious to allow further withdrawals, Bush acknowledged that keeping large numbers of troops in Iraq has stressed the military. And, as expected, he ordered a reduction in the length of deployments from 15 months to 12 months, beginning with troops headed to Iraq in August.
"General [David] Petraeus says he'll need time to consolidate his forces and assess how this reduced American presence will affect conditions on the ground before making measured recommendations on further reductions," Bush said. "And I've told him he'll have all the time he needs. We will use the months ahead to take advantage of opportunities created by the surge."
Bush's decision drew immediate criticism from the two Democratic presidential contenders, Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. They said Bush's decision to suspend the withdrawal of troops shows he lacks a clear exit strategy.
"It's time for the president to answer the question being asked of him: In the wake of the failed surge, what is the endgame in Iraq?" Clinton asked.
Obama, campaigning in Indiana, said of the speech: "There is no end in sight under the Bush policy."
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate majority leader Harry Reid, both Democrats, strongly hinted that they would use the upcoming spending bill for Iraq and Afghanistan to try to force a change in Bush's policy.
Bush, in his speech, vowed to veto any spending bill that "ties the hands of our commanders" in Iraq or includes "artificial timelines" for withdrawal.
At a joint press conference yesterday, Pelosi and Reid said the cost of the open-ended war is dragging down the US economy. Pelosi added that the president is ducking responsibility for the war - and the tough decisions - by leaving "a failed Iraq policy at the doorstep of the next president."
Hours later, Defense Secretary Robert Gates told a Senate panel that he doubts the US troop level in Iraq will drop below 100,000 by the end of the year, a goal he had set a year ago.
Last fall Gates expressed hope that troop levels in Iraq could continue to drop through this year.
At the time he said a consistent reduction would leave about 10 brigades - or roughly 100,000 troops - by the end of the year.
When asked yesterday by Senator Carl Levin, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, if that remains his hope, Gates responded: "No, sir."
Lawrence Korb, a former assistant Defense secretary now serving as a senior fellow at the left-leaning Center for American Progress, said Bush's move guarantees that the question of troop withdrawals will be a pressing issue in the fall presidential campaign.
By September, when Bush and Petraeus are set to reconsider troop withdrawals, the two presidential nominees will have begun the two-month sprint to the election.
"By the summer, we're down to 140,000 troops, which is 10,000 more than you had" when the surge started, Korb said. The next president will have to decide "the least bad option" between maintaining such a large US presence in Iraq and further stressing the military, or withdrawing more troops and possibly triggering more violence.
"If things don't go well, [Bush] will say, 'Well, I left you in good shape,' " Korb said.
In his 15-minute speech before veterans' groups yesterday, Bush largely echoed the broader themes Petraeus delivered to lawmakers on Tuesday and Wednesday: The addition of 30,000 reinforcements sent to Iraq in January 2007 has succeeded in reducing military and civilian casualties, sectarian violence is down, and tribal sheiks have allied with US forces against their common enemy, Al Qaeda in Iraq.
When the troop increase started last January, "America and the Iraqi government were on the defensive," the president said. "Today we have the initiative." Mainstream Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims, he said, are now actively confronting the extremists, and Al Qaeda is on the defensive in Iraq.
"We're now working to deliver a crippling blow," the president said.
Bush said those improvements have cleared the way for Iraqi lawmakers to begin guiding the country's political and economic development.
"These [political] gains receive less media coverage, but they are vital to Iraq's future," Bush said. "The national government is sharing oil revenues with the provinces. And many economic indicators in Iraq - from oil production to inflation - are now pointed in the right direction."
"Serious and complex challenges" remain in Iraq, Bush said. "We will stay on the offense against the enemy."
At the same time, he said, US forces will continue to train, equip, and support the Iraqi security forces, continue to transfer security responsibilities to them as provinces become ready, and move over time into an oversight role.
As soon as Iraqi troops prove their mettle, Bush said, US troops will return home - a strategy he called "return on success."
In the meantime, Bush said, withdrawing from Iraq would destabilize the region, and increase Iran's influence in Iraq.
He called on other nations in the region, including Saudi Arabia, to reengage diplomatically in Iraq and renewed his warning to Iran: Stop training, financing, and arming militant extremists, or "America will act to protect our interests, and our troops, and our Iraqi partners."