U.S. President George W. Bush has announced an order to withdraw 8,000 troops from Iraq by February, leaving U.S. force levels there at around 146,000 through the end of his presidency in January.
In his speech, at the National Defense University in Washington on September 9, Bush said the reductions was made possible by the success of what's been dubbed the "surge," of about 30,000 troops, that began last year.
The U.S. president cited a dramatic decrease in violence that he attributed to cooperation between U.S.-led coalition forces and residents of Iraq who were fed up with violence brought on largely by Sunni militants known as Al-Qaeda in Iraq.
Bush gave examples of such cooperation. He said that Al-Anbar Governorate, west of Baghdad, was once virtually a safe haven for Al-Qaeda in Iraq but has been stabilized as a result of coordination of U.S. and Iraqi forces with local Sunni leaders. He said the area was "no longer lost to Al-Qaeda...[but] has been reclaimed by the Iraqi people."
"Today, Anbar is a province transformed," Bush said. "Attacks in the province have dropped by more than 90 percent. Casualties are down dramatically. Virtually every city and town in Anbar now has a mayor and a functioning municipal council. Provincial reconstruction teams are helping local leaders create jobs and economic opportunity. Security has improved. Reconciliation is taking place across the province."
'Normal Life Is Returning'
Bush also cited success in recent efforts by indigenous Iraqi forces in Al-Basrah in southern Iraq, in Mosul in the north, and in Diyala Governorate just northeast of the capital. In all, he said, U.S. forces are playing only a supporting role.
"Violence is down to its lowest point since the spring of 2004," Bush said. "Civilian deaths are down, sectarian killings are down, suicide bombings are down, and normal life is returning to communities across the country. Provincial reconciliation is moving forward, [the] Iraqi government has passed budgets and major pieces of legislation. Our diplomats report that markets once shuttered by terrorist violence are now open for business."
In April, General David Petraeus, the commander of coalition forces in Iraq, told the U.S. Congress that the increase of about 30,000 U.S. forces in Iraq had dramatically lowered the level of violence in the country. But he cautioned at that time that those gains were fragile and reversible, and recommended against withdrawing forces too quickly.
In his fresh remarks, Bush said the lower levels of violence have been sustained since Petraeus spoke, and while the progress in Iraq is still fragile and reversible, he said Petraeus and Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, tell him it has "a degree of durability."
"Here's the bottom line: The enemy in Iraq is dangerous, we have seized the offensive," Bush said. "Iraqi forces are becoming increasingly capable of leading and winning the fight. As a result, we've been able to carry out a policy of 'return on success,' reducing American combat forces in Iraq as conditions on the ground continue to improve."
As a result, Bush said, the United States already has brought home all the army and Marine units that had been sent to Iraq in 2007 as part of the so-called surge.
Bush also made a point of thanking the other 41 countries in the Iraq coalition -- from Azerbaijan to Ukraine, who have contributed more than 140,000 troops -- for risking their lives, and sometimes losing them.
Bigger Afghan Presence
Bush said that as some U.S. troops are being withdrawn from Iraq, in Afghanistan there is now what he called a "quiet surge" of forces from the United States and other countries to strengthen the NATO mission there, where he acknowledged "huge challenges" remain. This would bring U.S. force levels alone to about 31,000 troops.
The U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, Bush said, will parallel that in Iraq: using an increasing number of NATO forces now to lead the fight against the insurgent Taliban and Al-Qaeda, while gradually shifting security responsibilities to the Afghan military.
"In the period ahead, we will once again encourage Afghan security forces and Afghan tribes to take a leading role in the building of a democratic Afghanistan," Bush said. "The Taliban and Al-Qaeda will not be allowed to return to power. The terrorists will suffer the same fate in Afghanistan that they are now suffering in Iraq, and they will be defeated."
Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his government welcome the U.S. troop increase, according to a spokesman quoted by Reuters.
"The government has a common stance on this: We need and welcome more foreign troops to tackle the war along with local forces," chief presidential spokesman Humayun Hamidzada said. "In the long term, the strengthening of national entities, their training and equipping, is the solution."
The 33,000 U.S. troops currently in Afghanistan make up roughly half the total number of international soldiers there.
Bush's Democratic opponents in Congress -- many of whom regard their showing in midterm elections in 2006 as a strong call by voters for an early withdrawal from Iraq -- don't share his enthusiasm. After his announcement, some expressed surprise that he had decided to withdraw so few troops from Iraq and send so few to bolster the NATO effort in Afghanistan.
Representative Ike Skelton (Democrat, Missouri) accused Bush of postponing a decision on troop levels until his successor -- presumably either fellow Republican Senator John McCain (Arizona), or Democratic Senator Barack Obama (Illinois) -- takes office in January.
with additional agency reporting