By JAMES ROSEN
January 05, 2006
In a separate address, Vice President Dick Cheney defended Bush's controversial domestic eavesdropping initiative, saying it might have helped prevent the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks had it been in place before then.
After meeting with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and conferring via teleconference with his top military commanders in Iraq, Bush said the Pentagon is removing 20,000 soldiers dispatched in late fall to beef up security for the Dec. 15 elections.
Those reductions will put the number of U.S. troops in Iraq at the pre-election level of 138,000, Bush said, and two more brigades - equaling several thousand - will be pulled out in the coming months. The remaining 135,000 troops in Iraq would be the lowest level since the summer of 2004.
"The commanders have recently determined that we can reduce our combat forces in Iraq from 17 to 15 brigades," Bush said at the Pentagon. "And the reason they were able to do so is because the Iraqis are more capable. The adjustment is underway. This adjustment will result in a net decrease of several thousand troops below the pre-election baseline of 138,000 U.S. troops in Iraq."
Bush also announced a planned drawdown of American military forces in Afghanistan - which, with Iraq, he called "the two major fronts in this war on terror" - saying the number of U.S. troops there will drop from 19,000 to 16,500 this year, with an additional 6,000 NATO forces filling the breach.
Bush, who has been under pressure from Democratic lawmakers to develop an exit strategy for Iraq, said further U.S. troop reductions there are possible later this year if Iraqis continue to make progress in defending the country and building a government.
"But my decisions will be based upon conditions on the ground and the recommendation of our commanders, not based by false political timetables in Washington, D.C.," Bush said. "I'm not going to let politics get in the way of doing the right thing in Iraq, and the American people have got to understand that."
Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, the House Democratic leader, accused Bush of failing to level with Americans about Iraq.
"President Bush also failed to admit that a lack of postwar planning in Iraq has allowed the insurgents to remain a threat nearly three years after the invasion," Pelosi said. "We are not where we should be at the start of yet another year of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Our troops and the American people would be better served if the president understood this and put forth a real plan for success."
Bush, though, described an evolving military mission in Iraq. U.S. troops will engage in less direct combat, he said, and focus more on providing logistical, communications and other support to Iraqi soldiers.
"More of our forces will be dedicated to training and supporting the Iraqi units," Bush said. "In the coming year, we will continue to focus on helping Iraqis improve their logistics and intelligence capabilities so more Iraqi units can take the fight and can sustain themselves in the fight."
U.S. commanders also will expand to Iraqi police a strategy Bush said has proven successful in training Iraqi soldiers. U.S. Special Operations forces and other highly trained officers will be embedded with Iraqi police, Bush said, training them in human rights, respect for the rule of law and other core elements of democracy.
Mainly Shiite Muslim vigilante members of some Iraqi police and security forces have been accused of carrying out revenge killings against Sunni Muslims, whose minority sect ruled Iraq under deposed dictator Saddam Hussein. And Iraqi Interior Ministry forces ran recently discovered secret prisons where inmates were abused.
Without citing those specific instances, Bush said that "recent reports of abuse by some of the Iraqi police units are troubling, and that conduct is unacceptable."
Bush heralded last month's elections of a permanent government in Iraq as a watershed, though he said it would take time for the victorious candidate slates to form coalitions and choose government leaders. He said Iraqi forces played a bigger role in providing security than they had in two earlier rounds of voting, and that Sunni Muslims participated in large numbers after boycotting the previous polling.
Citing figures from his military commanders, Bush said 215,000 Iraqi soldiers and police provided election security, compared with 85,000 in polling 11 months earlier for a temporary government.
While warning that "there will still be violence" in Iraq, Bush said that "the rejectionists, and the Saddamists and al Qaeda types . . . are becoming more and more marginalized" in the country.
"So in 2006, the mission is to continue to hand over more and more territory, and more and more responsibility, to Iraqi forces," Bush said.
Speaking a few hours after Bush, at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, Cheney said Iraqi voter turnout was significantly higher last month than it had been during two earlier rounds of voting.
Seventy percent of eligible voters cast ballots Dec. 15, Cheney said, up from 59 percent a year ago and 63 percent in the October constitutional referendum.
"Day after day, month after month, Iraqis have proven their determination to live in freedom, to chart their own destiny, and to defend their country," Cheney said. "And they can know that the United States will keep our commitment to them. . . . We will succeed in this mission, and when it is concluded, we will be a safer country."
Cheney urged congressional reauthorization of the stalled Patriot Act, saying it "has helped us to disrupt terrorist activity, break up terror cells within the United States, and protect the lives of Americans."
Cheney strongly defended Bush's decision shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks to authorize the National Security Agency to intercept international phone calls between people in the United States and suspected terrorists abroad.
"There are no communications more important to the safety of the United States than those related to al Qaeda that have one end in the United States," Cheney said. "If we'd been able to do this before 9/11, we might have been able to pick up on two of the hijackers who flew a jet into the Pentagon. They were in the United States, communicating with al Qaeda associates overseas. But we didn't know they were here plotting until it was too late."
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