Bush To Withdraw Troops From Iraq

President Bush on Tuesday announced a modest drawdown of U.S. forces in Iraq by February 2009. He also said if progress in Iraq continues, military leaders think additional U.S. troop reductions will be possible in the first half of next year. Both presidential candidates later responded to the news.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Steve Inskeep has been on assignment in the battleground state of Pennsylvania. I'm Renee Montagne.

And we turn now to a real battleground and reaction to President Bush's announcement that he'll slightly reduce the number of U.S. troops in Iraq early next year, around the time he leaves office.

Mr. Bush said the declining violence in Iraq allows for fewer troops. We have a report on how the Iraqi government is becoming more assertive as conditions improve. First, we'll hear how presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain responded to the president's withdrawal plan. NPR's Jackie Northam reports.

JACKIE NORTHAM: This could well be President Bush's last major announcement on troop numbers and movements in Iraq, and he sought to frame it in the best possible light. The president said that there was a dramatic drop in the number of killings in Iraq, and that the Iraqi security forces had improved.

Mr. Bush said he agreed with his military commanders, particularly General David Petraeus, that there had been progress, but that it was fragile and reversible.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: General Petraeus has just completed a review of the situation in Iraq, and he and he Joint Chiefs of Staff have recommended that we move forward with additional force reductions, and I agree.

NORTHAM: President Bush said over the next several months, some 3,400 combat support troops would rotate out of Iraq, and that a Marine battalion due to leave Iraq's Anbar province in November would not be replaced. Then, in February, an Army combat brigade would head home, bringing the total reduction to about 8,000.

Pres. BUSH: And if progress in Iraq continues to hold, General Petraeus and our military leaders believe additional reductions will be possible in the first half of 2009.

NORTHAM: The 8,000 U.S. service personnel leaving Iraq within the next five months is a roughly five percent reduction in the total number of American troops there. Still, President Bush called it a return on success. Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama said the plan comes up short and shows a lack of urgency to push for a troop withdrawal or political reconciliation in Iraq.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois; Presidential Nominee): We will continue to spend $10 billion a month in Iraq while the Iraqi government sits on a $79 billion surplus. In the absence of a timetable to remove our combat brigades, we will continue to give Iraq's leaders a blank check instead of pressing them to reconcile their differences. So the president's talk of return on success is a new name for continuing the same strategic mistakes.

NORTHAM: Republican Senator John McCain barely addressed Iraq during his political rallies on Tuesday, saying only the U.S. was winning there and that Obama was wrong about the war. In a written statement, McCain was more forceful, saying the president's announcement, quote, "demonstrates what success in our efforts can look like."

McCain reiterated that troop withdrawal should be based on conditions on the ground in Iraq and on the advice of military commanders in the field. What both candidates and the president agree on is that the security situation in Afghanistan is deteriorating and that more help, more U.S. troops are needed there.

Pres. BUSH: As we learned in Iraq, the best way to restore the confidence of the people is to restore basic security, and that requires more troops. I'm announcing today additional American troop deployments to Afghanistan. In November, a Marine battalion that was scheduled to deploy to Iraq will instead deploy to Afghanistan. It will be followed in January by an Army combat brigade.

NORTHAM: By January, a new president will have been chosen, and any new decisions about U.S. troop numbers and movements will fall to him.

Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington.

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