President George W. Bush insisted Saturday his new war strategy in Iraq showed promise but needed more time to bear fruit as the White House fought to rebuff calls for a withdrawal of US troops.
“We are still in the early stages of our new operations,” Bush said in his weekly radio address. “But the success of the past couple of months have shown that conditions on the ground can change — and they are changing.”
In a clear jab at critics demanding a drawdown of US troops, Bush added: “We cannot expect the new strategy we are carrying out to bring success overnight.”
The president said that every month since January, US forces have killed or captured on average more than 1,500 Al-Qaeda fighters and other insurgents in Iraq.
Bush’s positive portrayal of the unpopular war, part of a broader campaign by the White House to fend off calls for an early withdrawal of US forces, came despite a plea by a prominent Republican senator to begin at least a symbolic pullout of troops.
John Warner, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee and an influential voice on military issues, jolted the White House on Thursday when he called for a withdrawal of up to 5,000 US troops to “send a sharp and clear message” to the Baghdad government that the US commitment was not open-ended.
Bush has not responded directly to Warner’s call, but in his radio address he said security had improved in Iraq since his “surge strategy” deployed an extra 30,000 troops earlier this year.
Recent operations had cleared “terrorists out of population centers” and given “families in liberated Iraqi cities a safer and more normal life,” Bush said.
“As security improves, more Iraqis are stepping forward to defend their democracy,” he said, adding that more Iraqi men were signing up for the army and that Iraqi police were patrolling streets.
Bush hopes to shore up support for the war effort among Republicans ahead of a crucial report to Congress by the top US military commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, and US Ambassador Ryan Crocker.
The two are to present a progress report in mid-September on US efforts to quell violence and promote political stability with about 160,000 US troops now in the country.
In contrast to Bush’s upbeat assessment on Iraq, an analysis by US intelligence agencies presented Thursday offered a more pessimistic outlook. Democratic leaders in Congress cited the analysis as proof the president’s approach was a failure.
The declassified estimate confirmed some important yet fragile gains on security, but said the country’s political scene was still riven by sectarian suspicions.
“Iraqi political leaders remain unable to govern effectively” and sectarian violence “probably will intensify,” the intelligence report said.
The US military leadership also appeared divided over the right course of action in Iraq, amid reports top officers in Washington favored a major reduction of US forces soon while commanders on the ground wanted a more gradual drawdown.
The outgoing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Peter Pace, denied a report that he was poised to urge Bush to cut US force levels in Iraq by nearly half next year to ease the strain the war has placed on the military.
In Iraq, US Army Major General Rick Lynch said any withdrawal this year in his area of operations around Baghdad would be “a giant step backwards,” allowing insurgents to regain sanctuaries wrested from them in tough fighting.
In Washington, Democratic lawmakers kept up calls to begin a withdrawal of US troops as they hoped for defections among moderate Republicans.
“Further pursuit of the administration’s flawed escalation strategy is not in our nation’s best interests,” Jim Manley, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, told the Washington Post.
“The conflict in Iraq is an Iraqi political problem, not a US military problem,” said former senator and Vietnam war veteran Max Cleland in a radio address.
More than 3,700 US troops have been killed in Iraq since the 2003 invasion.
“Despite this enormous sacrifice, we find ourselves mired in a civil war with no end in sight and Iraqis unable or unwilling to make the political decisions necessary to end this conflict,” Cleland said.
Bush was expected to renew his defense of his war plan on Tuesday when he addresses members of the American Legion in Reno, Nevada.
The president lashed out at war critics in an address last week, warning a US pullout from Iraq could trigger a catastrophe similar to what occurred in Southeast Asia after the US debacle in Vietnam a generation ago.