U.S. Army Sgt. John Orem, right, and Staff Sgt. Eric Atkinson, left, from 4th Squadron, 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment search a home in Sa'ada, about 30 kilometers (20 miles) north of Baghdad in Iraq's volatile Diyala province on Monday, July 7, 2008. Iraqi and U.S. Army troops fanned out in search of weapons and suspected militia members. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)
(CBS/ AP) President Bush plans to keep U.S. troop levels in Iraq near their current level through the end of the year and will pull home about 8,000 U.S. troops by February when the next president will be in charge of wartime decision-making.
If security in Iraq keeps improving, Mr. Bush says, "additional reductions will be possible in the first half of 2009."
The president's decisions amount to perhaps his last major troop strategy in a war that has come to define his presidency.
He was to announce the details in a speech Tuesday, the text of which was released in advance by the White House.
One Marine battalion, numbering about 1,000 troops, will go home on schedule in November and not be replaced. An Army brigade of between 3,500 and 4,000 troops will leave in February. Accompanying that combat drawdown will be the withdrawal of about 3,400 support forces.
The measured reduction — slower in scope and pace than many Democrats in Congress would like — gives the military some flexibility to shift forces into Afghanistan.
"Here is the bottom line: While the enemy in Iraq is still dangerous, we have seized the offensive, and Iraqi forces are becomingly increasingly capable of leading and winning the fight," Mr. Bush said in remarks prepared for delivery to the National Defense University in Washington.
Mr. Bush argued that Iraq is in a better place now by almost any measure. He said violence is at its lowest point since the spring of 2004, "normal life is returning to communities across the country," and political reconciliation is moving forward.
The president cautioned that progress is still fragile and could be reversed. But he said his top commander and diplomat in Iraq assure him that the gains made there now have some durability.
But all this emphasis on progress and improvement belied the fact that his announcement is likely to be a disappointment to many who wanted — and even expected — bigger drawdowns sooner.
Nowhere did Mr. Bush acknowledge this, instead highlighting his announcement as one of "additional force reductions."
The Iraq war has drained the country's spirit during Mr. Bush's second term, and the future course of the conflict is a major point of division between the men who want to replace Mr. Bush, Republican Sen. John McCain and Democratic Sen. Barack Obama.
More than half of Mr. Bush's address is devoted to Afghanistan.
He outlined what he called a "quiet surge" of additional American forces there, bringing the U.S. presence to nearly 31,000, compared with about 146,000 in Iraq.
"For all the good work we have done in that country, it is clear we must do even more," the president said.
He announced that a Marine battalion that had been scheduled to go to Iraq in November would go to Afghanistan instead, and that that would be followed by one Army combat brigade.
Commanders repeatedly have asked for more troops in Afghanistan, where there has been a resurgence of the Taliban and a growth in violence. The president acknowledged that the challenges in Afghanistan remain huge.
"Unlike Iraq, it has few natural resources and has an underdeveloped infrastructure. Its democratic institutions are fragile," Mr. Bush said. "And its enemies are some of the most hardened terrorists and extremists in the world. With their brutal attacks, the Taliban and the terrorists have made some progress in shaking the confidence of the Afghan people."
In other developments:
Cholera has broken out in a province south of Baghdad and at least 20 cases of the waterborne disease have been confirmed there, a Health Ministry official said Monday.
The U.S. military has announced a pretrial hearing will be held Sept. 20 at a U.S. base in Tikrit for an Army lieutenant from Oklahoma charged in the death of an Iraqi detainee.The military says 1st Lt. Michael Behenna of Edmond is being charged with premeditated murder, assault, making a false official statement and obstruction of justice in the death of Ali Mansour Mohammed. Staff Sgt. Hal Warner of Braggs faces the same charges in the case.
Al Qaeda No. 2 Ayman al-Zawahiri has accused Iran of working with U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Iraq in his latest video message. Excerpts of message have appeared on Arab news channel Al-Jazeera and it is timed to mark the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.
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