Bush reveals Iraq war strategy

“America will not run in the face of car-bombers and assassins so long as I am your commander in chief,” Mr Bush told the friendly audience of mostly US Navy personnel.

“Decisions about troop levels will be driven by the conditions on the ground in Iraq and the good judgment of our commanders, not by artificial timetables set by politicians in Washington,” the US president insisted.

“Many advocating an artificial timetable for withdrawing our troops are sincere, but I believe they’re sincerely wrong. Pulling our troops out before they’ve achieved their purpose is not a plan for victory,” he said.

“I will settle for nothing less than complete victory,” he said. “Victory will come when the terrorists and Saddamists (followers of ousted leader Saddam Hussein) can no longer threaten Iraq’s democracy.”

Iraqi security forces

Mr Bush took pains to praise Iraq’s fledgling security forces and reiterated that they will eventually take over from US troops.

He acknowledged “some setbacks” in training Iraq’s army and police and acknowledged “their performance is still uneven in some areas” but said there had been steady progress even though only one battalion needs no US help.

“Not every Iraqi unit has to meet this level of capability in order for the Iraqi security forces to take the lead in the fight against the enemy,” the president declared.

“The facts are that Iraqi units are growing more independent and more capable,” he added. “They’re in the fight today and they will be in the fight for freedom tomorrow.”

The speech was the first in what aides said would be a series, ahead of Iraq’s December elections, laying out progress in Iraq as well as the strategy for the way forward on the political, economic, and security fronts.

Ahead of Mr Bush’s remarks, his national security council released its most detailed plan yet for success, warning that Iraq will face deadly violence “for many years” but predicting a limited withdrawal of US forces in 2006.

That suggested the possibility of some reduction in US troop levels ahead of the November 2006 US legislative and gubernatorial elections.

Timetable won’t win war

The national security council’s policy paper, on which Mr Bush partly based his speech, has warned that “no war has ever been won on a timetable and neither will this one.”

Long-term victory will come when Iraq is “peaceful, united, stable and secure, well integrated into the international community, and a full partner in the war on terrorism,” according to the 35-page document.

“Many challenges remain,” it said, warning that “terrorism and insurgencies historically take many years to defeat” and that “Iraq is likely to struggle with some level of violence for many years to come.”

There are currently about 159,000 US troops in Iraq, and about 2,100 have been killed since Bush launched the March 2003 invasion to topple Saddam Hussein, most in the bloody insurgency that followed.

As the debate over troop withdrawals raged in the United States, several members of the coalition have announced their own plans to reduce their military commitments to Iraq.

Japan plans to pull its troops out in mid-2006, but will formally extend its mission until next December to allow it to decide the exact withdrawal timetable.

Bush speech analysis

The “national strategy for victory in Iraq” rolled out by President Bush appears to have broken little new ground and highlighted his growing dilemma in trying to prosecute an unpopular war.

The aim of Mr Bush’s speech was to persuade an increasingly
sceptical US public that he was right to stay in Iraq after two and a half years and had a workable plan to defeat a raging insurgency.

But critics and analysts said his 45-minute speech, backed by a 35-page booklet put out by his National Security Council, was long on familiar rhetoric but short on any new ingredients for an exit strategy.

The booklet made clear that it was designed to simply articulate the broad strategy Bush laid out at the outset of the military operation to topple Saddam Hussein in 2003 and to provide an update on progress.

Democratic opponents were quick to pounce, with Senator Edward Kennedy chiding the president that his “effort to put lipstick on his failed Iraq strategy fools no-one.

“It’s still a plan for a continued open-ended commitment which puts at risk our troops on the ground and our citizens at home,” Kennedy said in a statement shortly after Mr Bush’s speech.

Mr Bush went out of his way to herald progress in training Iraqi security forces, yet out of the 212,000 Iraqis he counted as trained for the fight, a maximum of 128,000 are in operational battalions, according to US military officials.

At last count, only one unit could act independently.

“They lack some capabilities that we still have to provide them and will continue to have to provide them for a period of time,” Lieutenant General Martin Dempsey, in charge of training Iraqi forces, told National Public Radio.

Mr Bush made no mention of a reported request by US military officials for another 3.9 billion dollars next year to train and equip the Iraqis on top of the 10.6 billion dollars already approved by Congress.

Blueprint useful

Paul Hughes, an analyst with the United States Institute of Peace, saw the blueprint issued as a useful, if overdue, compendium of US strategies and objectives in Iraq.

“The big question is where are the means for attaining these goals,” said Mr Hughes, a senior official of the now-defunct Coalition Provisional Authority and the earlier Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance.

“This is great on paper,” he said. “But a paper that lacks the resources for implementing it is not worth the paper that it is written on.”

Mr Bush’s address Wednesday was the first in an expected series of speeches defending his policies ahead of landmark elections in two weeks for a permanent Iraqi government.