WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President George W. Bush on Thursday will endorse a limited withdrawal of about 20,000 troops from Iraq by July but will offer little else to skeptical Americans looking for a change of course in the unpopular war.
Trying to buy time to allow his strategy to work in the face of growing Democratic opposition, Bush will use a prime-time televised address to embrace a proposal by his top commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, to gradually remove five of 20 military brigades now in the country.
“Because of the measure of success we are seeing in Iraq, we can begin seeing troops come home,” Bush will tell Americans after Petraeus delivered two days of congressional testimony that underscored deep partisan divisions over the war.
Excerpts of Bush’s speech were released in advance of his Oval Office appearance at 9 p.m. EDT, the centerpiece of a public relations blitz aimed at blunting critics’ demands for a faster, wider withdrawal.
The partial drawdown approved by Bush will roll back troop strength from the current 169,000 to around the same levels the United States had in Iraq before the president ordered a buildup in January.
That has prompted Bush’s Democratic critics to accuse the administration of trying to fool the American people into thinking he has responded to growing anti-war sentiment when he is actually making no fundamental change in policy.
Even before Bush spoke, Democratic House speaker Nancy Pelosi said he was announcing “a stay-the-course strategy that puts us on a path for 10 years of war in Iraq.”
Bush agreed to Petraeus’s recommendation that 2,200 Marines return home this month and an army brigade leave by December, making for a total of 5,700 troops out of Iraq by Christmas without replacements, U.S. officials told reporters.
But they dodged repeated questions about exactly how many troops would be involved in the eventual withdrawal of five brigades by mid-2008.
An army brigade is typically made up of roughly 4,000 soldiers plus an unspecified number of support troops, which would make for a total withdrawal of more than 20,000 under Petraeus’s plan. The so-called “surge” over the past eight months involved deployment of about 21,500 combat troops.
Bush will make clear the size of the planned troop cuts will hinge on continued progress on security, saying, “The more successful we are, the more American troops can return home.” Petraeus will report to Congress again in March on the situation in Iraq, U.S. officials said.
Bush has insisted the “surge” in troop numbers since January has yielded improved security.
The fragility of such progress was shown earlier on Thursday when a Sunni Arab tribal leader instrumental in driving al Qaeda out of Iraq’s Anbar province was killed by a bomb. Bush had met Abdul Sattar Abu Risha during a visit to Anbar two weeks ago meant to highlight progress there.
Bush will also point out that the Iraqi government “has not met its own legislative benchmarks,” and will press them to do more to achieve national reconciliation.
Suggesting he envisions a U.S. military presence in Iraq well beyond the end of his term in January 2009, Bush will say Iraqi leaders “understand that their success will require U.S. political, economic, and security engagement that extends beyond my presidency.”
The drawdown would not be as fast or extensive as critics demand, but it could buy time for Bush to pursue the war by undermining a Democratic-led push for a broader disengagement 4-1/2 years after the invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.
Some of Bush’s fellow Republicans have also voiced doubts over his strategy.
Without a dramatic policy shift, Bush’s speech could be a tough sell. Polls show Americans 2-to-1 against the war.
Democrats say the White House is putting the best political spin on what Pentagon officials have been saying for months — that the buildup of forces in Iraq faces a time limit because of the risk of overstretching the U.S. military.
Additional reporting by Caren Bohan, Deborah Charles and Kristin Roberts