Iraq to Require Lengthy U.S. Military Presence
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
President Bush spoke to the American people from the Oval Office last night, arguing one more time for continuing the U.S. military operation in Iraq. This time, the president promised something different, a troop reduction by Christmas saying the buildup he ordered earlier this year was yielding results. But the president also stated that Iraq will rely on a long-term U.S. military presence extending beyond his presidency.
NPR's Don Gonyea reports.
DON GONYEA: It was the classic presidential setting: the desk in the Oval Office, pictures of wife and daughters and the family dog visible on the shelf behind him. The president stared at the camera and raised the stakes as high as he could.
President GEORGE W. BUSH: Good evening. In the life of all free nations, there come moments that decide the direction of a country and reveal the character of its people. We are now at such a moment.
GONYEA: The president portrayed Iraq as an ally fighting for survival against terrorists and extremists who, if successful, will also attack the U.S. at home. Iraq he said has placed its trust in the United States.
Pres. BUSH: And tonight, our moral and strategic imperatives are one: we must help Iraq defeat those who threaten its future and also threaten ours.
GONYEA: From there, he made the case for continuing the mission, citing testimony before Congress this week by General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker, claiming the so-called troop surge is working. He endorsed Petraeus' assessment that the number of U.S. brigades in Iraq could be reduced from the current 20 down to 15 by next July. If that plays out, it would likely still leave the total U.S. force at or above the roughly 130,000 in Iraq before the surge swelled the ranks. But he offered no specific promise beyond 5,700 troops to be brought home by Christmas.
The president pointed to Anbar province, a huge desert region to the west of Baghdad, as a success story. Mr. Bush noted that a year ago, Anbar was an al-Qaida stronghold, with local Sunni leaders working alongside those attacking U.S. troops. But in Anbar this year, Sunni sheikhs began working with U.S. forces to stop the violence. That and an increase in 4,000 Marines have brought the number of attacks way down.
Pres. BUSH: Anbar citizens who once feared beheading for talking to an American or Iraqi soldier now come forward to tell us where the terrorists are hiding.
GONYEA: But the Anbar story, a White House staple this summer, was tempered by some bad news. One of the Sunni leaders in Anbar Mr. Bush met with just last Monday in Iraq, died yesterday in a roadside bombing of his armored vehicle.
The president spoke of that attack last night.
Pres. BUSH: In Anbar, the enemy remains active and deadly. Earlier today, one of the brave tribal sheikhs who helped lead the revolt against al-Qaida was murdered. In response, a fellow Sunni leader declared, we are determined to strike back and continue our work.
GONYEA: The president spent much less time, just one paragraph, in an 18-minute speech on the troubled Iraqi government and its failure to meet benchmarks for political progress. That failure will be reiterated in a fresh White House report to be released today. That's why the president has cut back on bold predictions of victory. In a passage last night, that was immediately seized upon by the president's critics, he spoke of a long range U.S. presence in Iraq. He said the idea has the backing of leaders from across Iraq.
Pres. BUSH: These 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.
GONYEA: The president seemed well aware his war policy has not been popular. But it was just as clear he was determined to press on.
Pres. BUSH: 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.
GONYEA: Ultimately, Mr. Bush's goal seems not to move the majority in the polls, but to shore up his own political base. If enough Republicans remain willing to stand by him, the Democrats in Congress will not have enough votes to dictate Iraq policy on their own.
Don Gonyea, NPR News, Washington.