WASHINGTON — President Bush will tell the nation Thursday evening that he plans to reduce the American troop presence in Iraq by as many as 30,000 by next summer but will condition those and further cuts on continued progress, The Associated Press has learned.
In a 15-minute address from the White House at 9 p.m. EDT, Bush will endorse the recommendations of his top general and top diplomat in Iraq, following their appearance at two days of hearings in Congress, administration officials said. The White House plans to issue a written status report on the troop buildup on Friday, they said.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because Bush's speech is not yet final. Bush was rehearsing and polishing his remarks even as the U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker were presenting their arguments for a second day on Capitol Hill.
In the speech, the president will say he understands Americans' deep concerns about U.S. involvement in Iraq and their desire to bring the troops home, they said. Bush will say that, after hearing from Petraeus and Crocker, he has decided on a way forward that will reduce the U.S. military presence but not abandon Iraq to chaos, according to the officials.
The address will stake out a conciliatory tone toward Congress. But while mirroring Petraeus' strategy, Bush will place more conditions on reductions than his general did, insisting that conditions on the ground must warrant cuts and that now-unforeseen events could change the plan.
Petraeus recommended that a 2,000-member Marine unit return home this month without replacement. That would be followed in mid-December with the departure of an Army brigade numbering 3,500 to 4,000 soldiers. Under the general's plan, another four combat brigades would be withdrawn by July 2008.
That could leave the U.S. with as few as 130,000-135,000 troops in Iraq, down from about 168,000 now, although Petraeus was not precise about whether all the about 8,000 support troops sent with those extra combat forces would be withdrawn by July.
Petraeus said he foresaw even deeper troop cuts beyond July, but he recommended that Bush wait until at least March to decide when to go below 130,000 _ and at what pace.
At the White House, Bush met with House and Senate lawmakers of both parties and he publicly pledged to consider their views. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said the president didn't talk about the nationwide address.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Bush appears poised merely to bring the country back to where it was before the election that put Democrats in control of Congress _ with 130,000 troops in Iraq.
"Please. It's an insult to the intelligence of the American people that that is a new direction in Iraq," she said. "We're as disappointed as the public is that the president has a tin ear to their opinion on this war."
In his speech, Bush will adopt Petraeus' call for more time to determine the pace and scale of future withdrawals and offer to report to Congress in March, one official said.
As Petraeus and Crocker have, Bush will acknowledge difficulties, and the fact that few of the benchmarks set by Congress to measure progress of the buildup have been met, the official said. Yet, he will stress that a precipitous U.S. withdrawal would be a catastrophe for Iraq and U.S. interests.
The president will discuss "bottom up" security improvements, notably in Anbar Province, which he visited on Labor Day and where Sunni leaders have allied themselves with U.S. forces to fight insurgents. And, he will note incremental progress on the political front despite unhelpful roles played by Iran and Syria, the official said.
Crocker was particularly keen on detailing diplomatic developments, including Saudi Arabia's move to open an embassy in Baghdad and a third conference of Iraqi neighbors to be hosted by Turkey in Istanbul at the end of October.
In Congress, cracks in Republican support for the Iraq war remained, as epitomized by heated questioning Tuesday of Petraeus.
"Is this a mission shift?" asked Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska. "Are we continuing down the same path that we have laid out before, entirely reliant on the ability of the Iraqis to come together to achieve that political reconciliation?"
Sen. Norm Coleman said he wants a longer-term vision other than suggestions that Petraeus and Crocker return to Capitol Hill in mid-March to give another assessment. "Americans want to see light at the end of the tunnel," said Coleman, R-Minn.
Many rank-and-file Republicans say they are deeply uneasy about keeping troops in Iraq through next summer, but they also remain reluctant to embrace legislation ordering troops home by next spring. Democrats, under substantial pressure by voters and politically influential anti-war groups, had anticipated that a larger number of Republicans by now would have turned against Bush on the war because of grim poll numbers and the upcoming 2008 elections.
Indeed, Petraeus' testimony helped to solidify support elsewhere in the GOP, keeping Democrats far from the 60 votes they needed to pass legislation ordering troops home.
"Americans should be happy that we can begin to reduce troop levels months ahead of schedule," said Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M.
"I'm optimistic that when the votes are counted, they'll be roughly the same as they have been all year," said McConnell, the Senate Republican leader. "As you know, we've lost some, but not a lot and I think that's a likely outcome again."
Echoing testimony given to the House on Monday, Petraeus and Crocker acknowledged that Iraq remains largely dysfunctional but said violence had decreased since the influx of added U.S. troops.
Crocker said he fears that announcing troop withdrawals, as Democrats want, would focus Iraqi attention on "building the walls, stocking ammunition and getting ready for a big nasty street fight" rather than working toward reconciliation. "It will take longer than we initially anticipated" for Iraq's leaders to address the country's problems, he said.
The two days of testimony seemed to turn the debate away from the list of 18 benchmarks by which the White House and Iraq's government had said earlier this year that they preferred to measure progress. The administration has protested more recently that the benchmarks offer an unrealistic or incomplete look at the situation.
The hearing fell on the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
In an unusual admission, Petraeus said he was not sure whether his proposal on Iraq would make America safer.
A visibly heated Sen. John Warner, R-Va., asked the question to which Petraeus said: "Sir, I don't know, actually. I have not sat down and sorted that out in my mind. What I have focused on and riveted on is how to accomplish the mission of the multinational force Iraq."