Bush Set to Brief Nation on Iraq Plans

President Bush will address the nation Thursday night. He's expected to announce the beginning of a drawdown of U.S. troops from Iraq — including 5,700 troops to be pulled out in December.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

It has been a week of testimony and talk about the war in Iraq. And tonight, President Bush will address the nation in primetime. He's expected to formally endorse the recommendations of his top general in Iraq, David Petraeus. But he will do that, senior administration officials say, without going into much detail.

NPR's Don Gonyea is at the White House.

And, Don, you've been to some of those background briefings. What do we know about what the president will say regarding troop levels?

DON GONYEA: Well, first off, anyone looking to hear firm numbers tonight regarding troop levels into next year will be disappointed. We are going to get one specific number. Some troops will be home by Christmas - a senior administration official is telling us the president will announce tonight. Fifty-seven hundred troops home by Christmas, people who will be coming home and who will not be replaced by new troops in Iraq.

But after that, I mean, there are a lot of numbers out there but you won't get them from the president. You've heard that number - that maybe 30,000 would be coming home from Iraq by July. Well, White House says that's not their number, none of those other numbers out there are theirs. Instead, what they're talking about are brigades. A brigade is roughly thirty-five hundred. So they are saying that they want to reduce the current number of brigades, 20 down to 15. But, again, the White House is not even putting a timeline on that, and they stress they're only talking combat troops. So if we do the math, instead of 30,000, maybe it's 21,000, but the White House won't even be pinned down on that.

NORRIS: So, Don, beyond the troop numbers what broad themes might the president lay out?

GONYEA: You will hear a lot of talk about success, so far, in Iraq - success of the troop buildup, the surge. Now, it's not political success in terms of getting the Iraqi government fully functioning and getting reconciliation on the path toward where things can function more smoothly. But the message will be that the surge has been a military success. And expect lots of talk about Anbar province where the president made that Labor Day visit last week, where the Sunni tribal leaders, once allied with al-Qaida, decided instead to work with the U.S.

And it's true, violence has been way down in Anbar province. The president is going to highlight that and say that can be a model for the rest of the country, but - and it's a big but - there's also bad news out of Anbar today. One of those tribal leaders with whom the president sat down was killed today when a roadside bomb blew apart his armored vehicle.

NORRIS: And we should note that the president actually met with the Sheikh Abdel Sattar Abu Risha on a number of occasions.

GONYEA: Exactly, last weekend and on previous occasions. And this is really a blow to the U.S. He was a critical ally. The president is going to pay tribute to the sheikh tonight. But it also serves as a reminder in the midst of a speech that will try to focus on the positive just how dangerous and how volatile things still are there.

NORRIS: Now, this is not the first major primetime speech on Iraq the president has delivered this year. It was back on January 10th that he first announced that there would be a troop buildup, what's come to be known as the so-called surge.

Before we go on, let's listen to something that the president said back then.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED SPEECH)

GEORGE W: America will hold the Iraqi government to the benchmarks it has announced. To establish its authority, the Iraqi government plans to take responsibility for security in all of Iraq's provinces by November. To give every Iraqi citizen a stake in the country's economy, Iraq will pass legislation to share oil revenues among all Iraqis.

NORRIS: Now, Don, clearly those benchmarks have not been reached. What will the president say about that tonight?

GONYEA: It's probably the toughest part of the speech. He will basically say that from January, when that speech was made, to now, it just hasn't been enough time, but that doesn't mean that the U.S. should give up, that there are other signs of things going well, so it's important to keep moving forward.

NORRIS: And just speaking of signs of things going well, any evidence that the president's efforts, that tonight's speech, his trip to Anbar, is swaying public opinion?

GONYEA: He's gotten a slight bump up in the polls - 30 percent approve of his handling of the war now. That's, again, a bump upward, but that's still very low. Mostly he just needs to convince some moderate Republicans not to bail out on him.

NORRIS: That was NPR's Don Gonyea speaking to us from the White House.

Thank you, Don.

GONYEA: My pleasure.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Bush to Bring 5,700 Troops Home by Christmas

NPR News Special Coverage

Download NPR’s one-hour special report on President Bush’s speech, including analysis:

President Bush addresses the nation Thursday night during a primetime speech from the Oval Office.

President Bush addresses the nation Thursday night during a primetime speech from the Oval Office. APTN hide caption

itoggle caption APTN

Bush's Prepared Statement

Read the prepared text of President Bush's speech on Iraq Thursday evening, provided by the White House:

President Bush, defending an unpopular war, ordered gradual reductions in U.S. forces in Iraq on Thursday night and said, "The more successful we are, the more American troops can return home."

Still, Bush firmly rejected calls to end the war, saying the insurgents who threaten Iraq's future are a danger to U.S. national security. American troops must stay in the battle, Bush said, and more than 130,000 will remain after the newly ordered withdrawals are completed in July.

"The principle guiding my decisions on troop levels in Iraq is: return on success," the president said.

Bush said 5,700 U.S. forces would be home by Christmas and that four brigades — at least 21,500 troops — would return by July, along with an undetermined number of support forces. Now at its highest level of the war, the U.S. troop strength stands at 168,000.

With no dramatic change in course, Bush's decision sets the stage for a fiery political debate in Congress and on the 2008 presidential campaign trail. Democrats said Bush's modest approach was unacceptable.

The Democratic Response

Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, a former Army Ranger who delivered the Democratic response, said that "once again, the president failed to provide either a plan to successfully end the war or a convincing rationale to continue it."

Reed said Democrats would work to "profoundly change our military involvement in Iraq."

The reductions announced by Bush represented only a slight hastening of the originally scheduled end of the troop increase that Bush announced in January. When the cutbacks are complete, about 132,000 U.S. forces will be in Iraq.

Bush's speech was the latest turning point in a 4½-year-old war marred by miscalculations, surprises and setbacks.

Almost since the fall of Baghdad, in April 2003, U.S. commanders and administration officials in Washington mistakenly believed they were on track to winding down U.S. involvement and handing off to the Iraqis. Instead, the insurgency intervened, and the reality of a country in chaos conspired to deepen the U.S. commitment.

A Long U.S. Engagement in Iraq

Bush said the U.S. engagement in Iraq will stretch beyond his presidency, requiring military, financial and political support from Washington. He said Iraqi leaders "have asked for an enduring relationship with America.

"And we are ready to begin building that relationship in a way that protects our interests in the region and requires many fewer American troops."

Bush described the withdrawals, and the U.S. forces still fighting in Iraq, as a compromise on which war supporters and opponents could agree.

"The way forward I have described tonight makes it possible, for the first time in years, for people who have been on opposite sides of this difficult debate to come together," Bush said.

That appeared highly unlikely, however, based on the reaction of Democratic leaders who want deadlines for withdrawals.

"The American people long ago lost faith in the president's leadership of the war in Iraq because his rhetoric has never matched the reality on the ground," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA). "The choice is between a Democratic plan for responsible redeployment and the president's plan for an endless war in Iraq."

Majority Democrats in Congress are unable to muster enough votes to force an end to the war. So they are hoping to win Republican support with legislation to limit the mission of U.S. forces to training Iraq's military and police, protecting U.S. assets and fighting terrorists.

Addressing America's frustration with the protracted war, the president said, "Some say the gains we are making in Iraq come too late. They are mistaken. It is never too late to deal a blow to al-Qaida. It is never too late to advance freedom. And it is never too late to support our troops in a fight they can win."

"Whatever political party you belong to, whatever your position on Iraq, we should be able to agree that America has a vital interest in preventing chaos and providing hope in the Middle East," the president said.

He added, "Let us come together on a policy of strength in the Middle East."

A Fractured Iraqi Political Process

In his speech, Bush acknowledged that Iraq's government has failed to meet goals for political reconciliation and security.

"In my meetings with Iraqi leaders," he said, "I have made it clear that they must."

A White House report, to be released Friday, will document the failures of the Iraqi government.

The latest conclusions largely track a comparable assessment in July, the White House said. The earlier report said the Iraqi government had made satisfactory gains toward eight benchmarks, unsatisfactory marks on eight and mixed results on the rest. A senior administration official said Thursday that only one of the benchmarks — enacting and implementing legislation to allow former lower ranking members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party to hold government positions — has moved from unsatisfactory to satisfactory.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the report had not been made public, pointed to the tentative Aug. 26 power-sharing agreement among leading Iraqi politicians that outlined major terms on several issues, including changing the law preventing many former Baath Party members from holding government jobs and elected office.

"Iraq's national leaders are getting some things done," Bush contended. He said the Baghdad government has passed a budget and is sharing oil revenues among the provinces even though legislation has not been approved. Changes that have begun to take hold in the provinces must be followed in Baghdad, he said.

A Setback in Anbar Province

Bush's claims of security progress in Iraq were jarred by the assassination of a Sunni sheik who revolted against al-Qaida and fought alongside Americans.

Abdul-Sattar Abu Risha, the most prominent figure in a U.S.-backed revolt of Sunni sheiks against al-Qaida in Iraq, was killed Thursday by a bomb, dramatizing the danger faced by people who cooperate with coalition forces.

Bush had met with the sheik 10 days ago during a visit to Anbar province. Bush said that after the sheik's death, a fellow Sunni leader pledged to continue working with the United States.

"And as they do," the president said, "they can count on the continued support of the United States."

He said Anbar, once considered lost to al-Qaida, shows what can happen across Iraq. "They show al-Qaida that it cannot count on popular support, even in a province its leaders once declared their home base."

Bush said he had directed Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, and Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, to report to Congress in March with their next assessment of developments in Iraq and the level of U.S. troops needed to handle security.

"Americans want our country to be safe and our troops to begin coming home from Iraq," Bush said. He said his strategy would permit "people on opposite sides of this difficult debate to come together."

Polls show that Americans overwhelmingly disapprove of Bush's handling of the war, which has claimed the lives of more than 3,700 U.S. troops and cost about a half trillion dollars. His approval rating — both for his handling of Iraq and for his overall performance — stood at 33 percent in an Associated Press-Ipsos poll released Thursday.

Multiple Messages, Multiple Audiences

In his speech, Bush directed specific messages to different audiences.

To Congress, he sought support for Petraeus' recommendations on troop levels.

To Iraqis, he said, "You must demand that your leaders make the tough choices needed to achieve reconciliation."

To Iraq's neighbors, he said efforts by Iran and Syria to undermine the government in Baghdad must end and that "the violent extremists who target Iraq are also targeting you."

To the international community, he appealed for help in revitalizing Iraq's economy and support for an expanded mission of the United Nations in Iraq.

To U.S. military personnel, intelligence officers, diplomats and civilians on the front line, he said, "You have done everything America has asked of you."

(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.