WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales announced his resignation on Monday after months of questions about his competence and accusations from Congress that he politicized the office to benefit President George W. Bush.
Bush, who doggedly supported Gonzales during repeated confrontations with the Democratic-controlled Congress, said Gonzales had endured "months of unfair treatment that has created a harmful distraction at the Justice Department."
"It's sad that we live in a time when a talented and honorable person like Alberto Gonzales is impeded from doing important work because his good name was dragged through the mud for political reasons," Bush said.
Both Republicans and Democrats in Congress had demanded the 52-year-old Gonzales' resignation over the sacking of federal prosecutors last year, which critics said were politically motivated. He faced a possible perjury investigation for testimony before Congress, where lawmakers complained that his leadership had rendered the Justice Department dysfunctional.
Gonzales also weathered criticism on several other fronts, including his support for Bush's domestic spying program and his 2002 legal opinion that parts of the Geneva Convention on the treatment of prisoners of war were "obsolete."
He announced at the Justice Department that he will step down on September 17.
The attorney general gave no reason for his sudden decision to leave, but wrote in his resignation letter to Bush: "This is the right time for my family and I to begin a new chapter in our lives."
The son of migrant workers who began working for Bush as an attorney when the president was still the governor of Texas, Gonzales told reporters: "I have lived the American dream."
"Even my worst days as attorney general have been better than my father's best days."
U.S. Solicitor General Paul Clement will serve as acting attorney general.
Gonzales is the latest member of Bush's inner circle to leave the White House as the administration heads toward the final year of its two-term reign. Top Bush adviser Karl Rove departed last week, following former communications director Dan Bartlett earlier this year.
He served as White House lawyer in Bush's first term, before becoming the first Hispanic attorney general in February 2005.
"I have reluctantly accepted his resignation with great appreciation for the service that he has provided for our country," Bush said.
A senior administration official said the president had not decided on a new nominee. But speculation centered on possible candidates including Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff.
A new nominee could have a challenge winning support from Senate Democrats, including several presidential candidates.
"My hope is that the president will select a new attorney general who will respect the rule of law and abandon partisanship," said Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York, the leading Democratic presidential hopeful.
Other Democrats said Gonzales' departure would not end investigations of accusations of political influence in the Justice Department. Gonzales had acknowledged mistakes in the firings but insisted they were not politically motivated.
"I hope the attorney general's decision will be a step toward getting to the truth," said Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which will consider the next nominee's credentials.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said: "This resignation is not the end of the story. Congress must get to the bottom of this mess and follow the facts where they lead, into the White House."
Like Bush, some Republicans sought to portray Gonzales as a victim of the partisan politics of Democrats who took control of Congress in January.
But Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, top Republican on Leahy's committee and a prominent critic of Gonzales, commended the attorney general "for placing the interest of the Department of Justice ahead of his own continued tenure."
Additional reporting by Deborah Charles, James Vicini, Tabassum Zakaria and Andy Sullivan in Washington and Jeremy Pelofsky in Crawford, Texas