Troop Cutbacks in Iraq on Hold

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Taking the advice of his top commander in Iraq, President Bush has decided not to order additional troop drawdowns for now, leaving open the possibility that about 140,000 U.S. servicemen and women will still be in the war zone when the next president takes office.

In a 12- to 15-minute progress report, Bush on Thursday planned to announce shorter combat tours, but troops already in Iraq won't be going home any earlier, at least for now. Senior defense officials said Bush would announce that Army units heading to Iraq after Aug. 1 would serve 12-month tours rather than their current 15-month deployment, a move that war critics say the president had to make to ease strain on the Army.

The White House disclosed few other details about the speech Bush was to deliver in the Cross Hall of the White House, five years after the U.S. capture of Baghdad. Yet his words were expected to echo the congressional testimony by Gen. David Petraeus, the top commander in Iraq, and U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker.

Bush was to have breakfast with the two in his private dining room, capping two days of televised exchanges on Capitol Hill that Petraeus and Crocker had with lawmakers, including the three senators vying to become next occupant of the Oval Office: Republican John McCain and Democrats Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Petraeus told Congress that it's too early to talk about future drawdowns because the situation in Iraq remains fragile, and that while security has improved and Iraqi forces are shouldering more of the fight against extremists, Iraq still could descend again into chaos.

Embracing Petraeus' recommendation, Bush will refrain from ordering any more troop cutbacks before mid- to late-September at the earliest. Even then, flare-ups in violence and a need to keep Iraq's provincial elections safe this fall could mean the president will not be able to withdraw any more troops until late this year, if at all.

Bush will make the case that his troop buildup has succeeded in reducing violence in Iraq, despite recent increases in Baghdad and Basra. He'll have a harder time arguing that political reconciliation - his rationale for sending 30,000 more troops to Iraq last year - has been achieved.

Even before Bush made his announcement, war critics went on the attack.

"We are six years into a war that has claimed more than 4,000 American lives ... cost nearly a trillion dollars that could have been used to meet urgent needs at home and damaged the reputation of the United States in the eyes of the world," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi wrote to Bush in a letter she released late Wednesday. "General Petraeus admitted on Tuesday that `we haven't turned any corners, we haven't seen any lights at the end of the tunnel' in Iraq.

"The American people are entitled to know when they will receive a more hopeful report than the one provided by General Petraeus, and what changes in policy you will make to achieve it before you leave office," Pelosi, D-Calif., said.

She added that Bush needs to tell the American people how keeping 140,000 troops in Iraq will help reduce the threat the nation faces because the U.S. military is bogged down in Iraq, what conditions will be needed for further troop withdrawals beyond July and how much longer the threat from extremists hiding along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border will be allowed to "grow because our resource commitment in Iraq makes is impossible to respond adequately."

After Petraeus' war update in September, Bush said the principle guiding his decisions on troop levels was "return on success." He said then that the additional troops he ordered to Iraq had improved security enough that they could be pulled out by the end of July. That would bring the current level of 160,000 troops in Iraq now to about 140,000 in July.

Beyond that, Petraeus wants a 45-day period of "consolidation and evaluation," to be followed by an indefinite period of assessment before he would recommend any further pullouts.

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