Bush set to back troop cut in Iraq

But President will make limited withdrawal conditional on further progress on the ground.

US PRESIDENT George W. Bush, given a fillip by his top military commander in Iraq, will announce plans tonight for limited troop cuts from the war-torn country.

But the pullout of American soldiers by the middle of next year – and further cuts in US forces – will be conditional on further progress on the ground.

Tonight’s nationwide address follows key congressional testimony this week by General David Petraeus and US ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker on Mr Bush’s “surge” strategy.

The strategy has seen some 30,000 extra soldiers deployed to the country to quell violence.

During two days of marathon hearings, Gen Petraeus said the surge was working and US troop numbers could recede to pre-surge levels of around 130,000 by next summer.

White House spokesman Tony Snow said the President will “address the nation on his proposed way forward in Iraq, obviously responding to the testimony this week”.

Mr Snow refused to give details of the speech, but its contents were leaked to several members of the US media.

The Washington Post, citing unnamed White House aides, said Mr Bush planned to emphasise that he could order a troop reduction only because of the success achieved on the ground in Iraq, and that he was not being swayed by political opposition.

Aides said the President will caution that the cuts would be conditional on continued military gains and that he planned to outline what he saw as the dire consequences of failure in Iraq.

But Democrats, who took control of Congress in January, have already taken aim at Gen Petraeus, charging that the strategy he outlined was a blueprint for 10 more years of war.

They rejected “rosy” claims of battlefield progress and demanded a speedy withdrawal.

After meeting Mr Bush on Tuesday, both House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid expressed dismay with the Petraeus plan.

The general has refused to commit to further reductions until he can assess conditions on the ground next March.

Ms Pelosi said she had told the President that he was essentially endorsing a 10-year “open-ended commitment”.

Mr Reid said the President wants “no change in mission – this is more of the same”.

But it is doubtful that the Democrats can bring all the troops home. Although they may claim public opinion on their side, they lack the numbers in Congress to override a presidential veto if they try to mandate such a pullout.

Much will now depend on whether they can win over the Republicans.

Significantly, the two-day testimony by Gen Petraeus and Mr Crocker yielded some of the most biting Republican comments since the President announced his troop build-up in January.

Several Republicans said the four-star general’s proposal to draw down troops through the middle of next year would result in force levels equivalent to where they stood before the increase began – about 130,000 troops.

The fresh criticism from several Republicans had leaders in both chambers searching for new formulas that might attract bipartisan support.

Such legislation might include calls to begin troop withdrawals – but without the hard and fast timelines that had previously invited presidential veto threats.

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