After repeatedly rejecting calls to set a timetable for a withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, in a speech on Monday, President Bush came as close as he ever has to doing just that. Speaking to the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, the president said he envisions turning over most of Iraq to Iraqi troops by the end of this year.
"As more capable Iraqi police and soldiers come on line, they will assume responsibility for more territory with the goal of having the Iraqis control more territory than the coalition by the end of 2006," Bush said. "And as Iraqis take over more territory, this frees American and coalition forces to concentrate on training and on hunting down high-value targets like the terrorist [Abu Musab al-] Zarqawi and his associates."
The speech came as the president's poll numbers dipped to a new all-time low. In the latest CNN/ USA Today Gallup poll, released Monday, the percentage of people who approve of how Bush is doing his job dropped another point to 36 percent, the lowest of his presidency (see "The 50-Point Drop: How Did Bush Fall This Far?"). The poll also revealed that only 38 percent believe the war in Iraq is going well for the U.S., down from 46 percent in January. The numbers suggested that Bush's legacy will be forever linked with the war, with two-thirds of those polled saying they believe history will remember Bush most for the March 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Bush's speech on Monday was the first in what administration officials have said will be a series of talks intended to lay out the White House's strategy for victory in Iraq, according to The Washington Post.
While the president did not commit to withdrawing U.S. troops by the end of the year, he did reiterate that as newly trained Iraqi troops take over, allied forces could begin standing down. He also admitted that the war has been more brutal and longer-lasting than envisioned.
After praising last year's peaceful democratic elections (see "Amid Sporadic Violence, Iraqis Go To Polls For Historic Vote"), Bush said recent events have somewhat obscured those victories. "In the past few weeks, the world has seen very different images from Iraq, images of anger and violence and despair," Bush said (see "Civil War Fears Persist In Iraq After Bombing Of Shiite Holy Site"). "We have seen a great house of worship, the Golden Mosque of Samarra, in ruins after a brutal terrorist attack. We've seen mass protests in response to provocation. We've seen reprisal attacks by armed militias on Sunni mosques, and random violence that has taken the lives of hundred of Iraqi citizens."
Nearly three years after the president stood on a the deck of an aircraft carrier in front of a banner that read "Mission Accomplished" in May 2003, Bush admitted that the end is not clearly in sight. "I wish I could tell you that the violence is waning and that the road ahead will be smooth. It will not. There will be more tough fighting and more days of struggle and we will see more images of chaos and carnage in the days and months to come."
The president said "terrorists" attacked the Samarra mosque in February because they lack the military strength to confront coalition forces and are trying to provoke a civil war. He also accused Iran of providing Shiite militias with explosives to attack U.S. and allied forces, many of them used in the deadly IEDs (improvised explosive devices) that have killed and injured thousands of troops.
"Some of the most powerful IEDs we're seeing in Iraq today include components that come from Iran," Bush said. The combination of the explosives pipeline and Iran's adamant stance on developing its nuclear program have increasingly isolated the country, according to Bush, who added that "America will continue to rally the world to confront these threats."
In addition to lashing out at Iran, the president took issue with The Los Angeles Times, which he criticized for revealing sensitive information about the Pentagon's efforts to combat IEDs. The newspaper said Bush was referring to a February 12 account when he said, "Within five days of the publication, using details from that article, the enemy had posted instructions for defeating this new technology on the Internet. We cannot let the enemy know how we're working to defeat them."
The Times article was about a debate within the Pentagon over the JIN (Joint IED Neutralizer), which despite passing military tests in which it destroyed 90 percent of IEDs, had still not been sent to troops in Iraq. According to a Tuesday (March 14) story in the Times, the article did not reveal specific information on the technology and the paper deliberately withheld some details about the neutralizers in the story, which did not raise any concern from Defense Department officials who were contacted before it ran.
The Washington Post questioned how meaningful Bush's goal of turning over the majority of Iraq to homegrown troops is, considering the math involved. The president said Iraqi units currently have primary responsibility over 30,000 square miles of Iraqi territory, which is an increase of 20,000 square miles since the beginning of this year. But to fulfill Bush's target, those troops would have to gain control of 85,000 of Iraq's 169,000 square miles. That goal could prove elusive, however, since no Iraqi unit is currently capable of operating without any U.S. assistance.