WASHINGTON - President Bush, defending his decision to halt withdrawals of U.S. troops after July, said Saturday that Iraqis are shouldering more responsibility for securing their future.
The United States will stay on the offense, support the Iraqi security forces and move toward an oversight role, Bush said in his latest effort to garner support for the unpopular war. He used his Saturday radio address to promote his war policy, even though his approval rating hit a new low of 28 percent in an AP-Ipsos survey this week.
The president on Thursday said he would heed the advice of his top commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus. After the current drawdown of U.S. troops ends in July, Petraeus wants 45 days to evaluate security — followed by an indefinite period to reassess U.S. troop strength in Iraq, where flare-ups of extremist violence are threatening to undercut security gains.
"I've told him he'll have time he needs to make his assessment," Bush said.
That stance guarantees a heavy American military presence in Iraq for the rest of Bush's presidency as the war grinds through its sixth year. The current total of 160,000 troops is scheduled to shrink to about 140,000 by the end of July. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Thursday that he no longer thinks, as he did last fall, that it was possible for troop levels to drop to 100,000 by year's end.
Democrats have criticized the Iraqi government for not making faster political progress while U.S. troops continue to fight and die. Democratic leaders also chide Bush for, in their view, failing to answer questions about exactly what conditions would allow troops to come home more quickly.
Bush said, however, that the troop drawdowns under way show that the military buildup he ordered last year has worked to stem violence.
"Serious and complex challenges remain in Iraq," he said. "Yet with the surge, a major strategic shift has occurred. Fifteen months ago, extremists were sowing sectarian violence. Today, many mainstream Sunni and Shia are actively confronting the extremists.
"Fifteen months ago, al-Qaida was using bases in Iraq to kill our troops and terrorize Iraqis. Today, we have put al-Qaida on the defensive in Iraq, and now we are working to deliver a crippling blow. Fifteen months ago, Americans were worried about the prospect of failure in Iraq; today, thanks to the surge, we've revived the prospect of success in Iraq."
Bush said U.S. forces are continuing to transfer more security responsibilities to the Iraqi security forces. He said Iraq's economy was growing, and that Iraq was assuming responsibility for nearly all the funding of large-scale reconstruction projects. On the political front, he said Iraq is planning to hold elections that will provide a way for Iraqis to settle disputes through the political process instead of through violence.