Democrats React Harshly to President's Speech

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President Bush has spoken and the war debate will now shift to Capitol Hill, where the president is expected to seek close to $200 billion in emergency funding. Democrats want a faster and bigger troop drawdown than Mr. Bush proposed.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

More decisions on Iraq will likely come next on Capitol Hill where President Bush is expected to seek close to $200 billion more in emergency funding for the war. Democrats want a faster and bigger troop drawdown than what the president proposed last night. But they've been unwilling to use Congress' power of the purse to end the war.

Now, those Democrats are considering taking up measures on Iraq they had previously rejected as inadequate, all in order to win over more Republicans. And that could happen next week.

NPR's David Welna reports from the Capitol.

DAVID WELNA: Congressional Democrats chose a 12-year Army veteran, retired Captain and Rhode Island Senator Jack Reed to deliver their official response last night to the president's speech. And lest anyone doubted his loyalties, Reed was backed by a phalanx of American flags.

Senator JACK REED (Democrat, Rhode Island): Tonight, a nation eager for change in Iraq heard the president speak about his plans for the future. But, once again, the president failed to provide either a plan to successfully end the war or a convincing rationale to continue it.

WELNA: As for Mr. Bush's assertion last night that success in Iraq requires a U.S. engagement there beyond his presidency, Reed said flatly, an endless and unlimited military presence in Iraq is not an option.

But in his response to the speech, Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell focused on that same proposal and expressed confidence Congress would back a long-term presence either in Iraq or nearby.

Senator MITCH McCONNELL (Republican, Kentucky; Senate Minority Leader): I do know for a fact that many senators are saying privately - we'll see whether they'll see it publicly - that the end game here for the long-term is some kind of troop deployment of the United States in the region - maybe it will be in Iraq, maybe not - to give us the maximum opportunity to prevent further attacks on the homeland.

WELNA: Another Republican senator, Oregon's Gordon Smith, says few of his GOP colleagues have publicly broken with President Bush on the war as he has.

Senator GORDON SMITH (Republican, Oregon): Many Republicans, I think, find the stay-the-course message disturbing and unsatisfying.

WELNA: Smith says discontent has grown in Republican ranks to the point where a previously blocked measure might now pass in the Senate. It requires that before troops be sent back to Iraq, their home leave equal their previous deployment. Smith calls that a backdoor means of forcing more troop drawdowns.

Sen. SMITH: It will have the obvious effect of reducing numbers and forcing a -an earlier transition to post-surge footprint.

WELNA: That measure would possibly be added to a defense policy bill that Majority Leader Harry Reid yanked from the Senate floor in July after an amendment setting a troop withdrawal deadline failed. Reid intends to return to that defense bill next week.

Senator HARRY REID (Democrat, Nevada; Senate Majority Leader): So I call on the Senate Republicans to not walk lock-step as they have with the president for years in this war. It's time to change. It's the president's war. At this stage, it appears clearly it's also the Republican senators' war.

WELNA: For all the tough talks, Senate Democrats now seem ready to drop the troop withdrawal deadlines they'd earlier insisted on.

Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin says it's a matter of practicality.

Senator CARL LEVIN (Democrat, Michigan; Armed Services Committee Chairman): To me, if we can pick up Republican support to get past the filibuster, I believe it's worth considering returning to a goal for the completion of the transition.

WELNA: But in doing so, Levin risks losing the support of passionately anti-war colleagues, such as Connecticut Democrat and presidential contender Chris Dodd who vowed this week he won't vote for anything without a troop withdrawal deadline.

Senator CHRIS DODD (Democrat, Connecticut; Presidential Candidate): Clearly, setting the time certain here. I think that's what's missing for the Iraqis.

WELNA: At the same time, some GOP senators facing tough re-election bids next year, such as Minnesota's Norm Coleman, seem increasingly reluctant to back the president on the war.

Senator NORM COLEMAN (Republican, Minnesota): I think we need to see a longer-term vision of troop reduction and mission change. And so that's what I'm looking at.

WELNA: So the Democrats' dilemma now, is how to win over Republicans like Coleman without losing more of their own.

David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

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Bush to Bring 5,700 Troops Home by Christmas

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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

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Bush's Prepared Statement

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

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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.)

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