WASHINGTON — Trumpeting progress in Iraq, President Bush said for the first time Thursday that security improvements now have a "degree of durability" _ an assertion that appeared to lay the groundwork for an announcement in coming weeks of further U.S. troop reductions.
Echoing the president's assessment, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said later at a Pentagon news conference that security in Iraq has "improved dramatically" and that he sees "a real possibility" that conditions there will permit more troop cuts, although he did not say how soon or how many.
The administration is awaiting a recommendation from its soon-to-depart commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, on future troop levels. Petraeus is expected to submit that report before the end of August, and in mid-September he will leave Baghdad to become commander of U.S. Central Command, a position of broader responsibility that includes the increasingly worrisome war in Afghanistan.
Management of the two wars is becoming more closely intertwined in the sense that the Pentagon's ability to send more troops to Afghanistan _ as requested by U.S. commanders there _ is severely constrained by the large number of forces still in Iraq _ about 145,000 as of Thursday.
"We'd like to get additional troops there as soon as we could," Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said, appearing alongside Gates. Mullen was referring to commanders' stated request for three additional brigades in Afghanistan, including one to conduct training of Afghan forces.
Gates said "there are some alternatives" to waiting for Petraeus' recommendation on troop levels in Iraq before sending more troops to Afghanistan, but he was not specific. At another point, he said the Pentagon is "looking at" sending a relatively small number of support forces, such as ordnance disposal teams and civil affairs soldiers _ "a couple of hundred at most" _ to Afghanistan soon.
With the Iraq war in its sixth year and violence substantially decreased in recent months, Bush gave a brief and hastily arranged update at the White House. He noted that violence is at its lowest since the spring of 2004 and said Iraqi forces increasingly are capable of securing the country.
"The progress is still reversible," Bush said, but added, "There now appears to be a degree of durability in gains."
That statement is especially noteworthy because it addresses one of the keys to eventually winding down the war: establishing what Petraeus calls sustainable security _ a condition in which Iraqis can maintain sufficient security throughout the country with minimal or no American military assistance.
Looking ahead to the next recommendation on troop levels from U.S. generals in Iraq, Bush suggested it was reasonable to expect "further reductions in our combat forces, as conditions permit."
The war is a key issue in the presidential campaign. The likely GOP nominee, Sen. John McCain, has accused Democratic rival Barack Obama of planning a reckless withdrawal. Obama has countered that the United States should not have gone to war and that he would order all combat forces out of the country within 16 months of taking office in order to free up resources for Afghanistan.
Increasing numbers of people in this country believe that Bush's decision in January 2007 to send an extra 30,000 troops to Iraq has helped improve the situation there. According to a USA Today-Gallup Poll conducted last weekend, 48 percent say the buildup has made things better. That compares with 40 percent who said so in February and 22 percent in July 2007.
On the other hand, 56 percent say the U.S. erred in invading Iraq. That figure is down slightly from the spring but has changed little over the past two years.
Bush spoke for four minutes outside the Oval Office before a trip to West Virginia. In remarks that showed him eager to talk about progress, he still attached qualifications at every step, wary of repeating the mistake of his "Mission Accomplished" speech in May 2003.
"We remain a nation at war," he said. "The terrorists remain dangerous and they are determined to strike our country and our allies again."
His appearance was timed to Friday's start of reduced tour lengths for U.S. troops. Starting Aug. 1, Army units heading to Iraq will serve 12-month tours rather than the 15 months that active-duty soldiers are currently deployed.
Bush said this reduction "will relieve the burden on our forces and it will make life easier for our wonderful military families."
Offering a concrete example of Iraq's growing ability to provide its own security, Bush noted that Iraqi forces are taking the lead in a new offensive this week in the Diyala province northeast of Baghdad. About 50,000 U.S.-backed Iraqi military and police forces are going after insurgents there.
"This operation is Iraqi-led; our forces are playing a supporting role," Bush said. "In the months ahead, the Iraqis will continue taking the lead in more military operations across the country."
Bush claimed progress on negotiations for a long-term agreement with Iraq governing the U.S. troop presence. The White House's original goal was to have it completed by Thursday, the end of July. The U.N. mandate that now allows the U.S. to be in Iraq expires Dec. 31.
But the difficult talks have spawned many disputes, including over setting timelines for troop withdrawals, and the best hope now seems to be only a stopgap agreement by the end of the year. With only a few months left of in the Bush presidency, the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has taken a toughened stance on its own demands.
Associated Press writers Jennifer Loven and Alan Fram contributed to this report.