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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

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

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

We've heard a lot of numbers this week about troops in Iraq and a lot of claims about how the war is or isn't succeeding. And politicians on both sides, including President Bush in his speech last night, have been picking and choosing from among them.

NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman, listened to the president's speech last night with a close ear and has this report.

TOM BOWMAN: This is why the president said American troops have to stay in Iraq.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: We must help Iraq defeat those who threaten its future and also threaten ours.

BOWMAN: The problem is those doing the threatening are not one and the same for the Iraqis and the U.S. Iraq's government faces sectarian challenges including Sunni and Shiite death squads, as well as attacks from the terrorist group al-Qaida in Iraq. America is threatened by al-Qaida, which carried out the September 11th attacks. There is no threat to the United States' future from such Shiite militia groups as the Mahdi Army and the Badr Corps or the Sunni militia group, the 1920 Brigades. The president also outlined troop reductions spelled out by his Iraq commander General David Petraeus.

President BUSH: By July, we will be able to reduce our troop levels in Iraq from 20 combat brigades to 15.

BOWMAN: That may sound greater than it really is. The so-called surge included 30,000 extra troops including 9,000 support troops like military police. Even with a cut in five brigades, Petraeus says, he's uncertain how many of those support troops will be reduced. The bottom line, by next summer, America will still have at least 130,000 troops in Iraq. Roughly the same number that rolled in to Iraq in March 2003. And the president said that, eventually, American troops could pull back from the frontlines and assume a supervisory role.

Pres. BUSH: Over time our troops will shift from leading operations to partnering with Iraqi forces and eventually to over-watching those forces.

BOWMAN: That's what the administration has been saying for years. The question is, when? Some military officers say it could be years before American troops reach that so-called over-watch position.

Finally, President Bush used a key word in his speech, a word that perhaps overshadows all others.

Pres. BUSH: Now because of the measure of success we're seeing in Iraq, we can begin seeing troops come home.

BOWMAN: But everyone from the president on down says that success can only come from political reconciliation not through the barrel of a gun.

Tom Bowman, NPR News, the Pentagon.

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