Bush claims Iraq ‘back on track’

President George W. Bush said on Saturday his goal of reducing troop numbers in Iraq by July was on track but called on Syria and Iran to stop fueling violence in the war-torn country.

He made his comments after meeting his top political and military commanders in Iraq at a US base in Kuwait, where he also addressed hundreds of the American troops stationed in the oil-rich emirate.

After talks with General David Petraeus, the commander of US forces in Iraq, and US ambassador Ryan Crocker, Bush told reporters Washington was on track to reduce the number of brigades to 15 from the current 20.

"The levels of violence are significantly reduced. Hope is returning to Baghdad and hope is returning to the towns and the villages throughout Iraq," he said.

"One Army brigade and one Marine Expeditionary Unit have already come home, and they will not be replaced. In the coming months, four additional brigades and two Marine battalions will follow suit."

Syria "needs to further reduce the flow of terrorists, especially suicide bombers. Iran must stop supporting the militia special groups that attack Iraqi and coalition forces, and kidnap and kill Iraqi officials," he added.

"Iran's role in fomenting violence has been exposed — Iranian agents are in our custody, and we are learning more about how Iran has supported extremist groups with training and lethal aid."

Bush's comments came only day after he conceded that US forces could stay for a decade in Iraq, which is still gripped by bombings almost five years on from the US-led invasion despite last year's troop "surge."

Asked in an interview with NBC television whether the US military presence might last 10 years, Bush said: "It could easily be that, absolutely."

A surprise visit to Iraq by the US president has not been ruled out during his tour of the region, which is aimed at promoting Middle East peace and seeking support from his efforts to contain what he calls the Iranian "threat."

US commanders have repeatedly accused Iran of helping Shiite militias in Iraq and said Syria was not doing enough to stop insurgents crossing the border to fight against American troops.

Bush spoke to a crowd of about 1,500 US troops at Camp Arifjan, one of Washington's largest military bases in the region and one of several in Kuwait, which served as a springboard for the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq.

"You are doing the hard work necessary to protect the United States of America because you have defeated an enemy overseas so we don't have to meet them at home," Bush said.

He described the fight against terrorism as an "ideological struggle," adding: "History will show that the best way to defeat the ideology of hate is with an ideology of hope."

The US president has been to Iraq three times since the invasion, most recently in September last year, but his strategy in the war-ravaged country is increasingly unpopular at home.

He is in Kuwait on a four-nation Gulf trip aimed in party to rally the support of Sunni Arab allies in his campaign to isolate Shiite Iran and to win backing for his goal to strike a Middle East peace deal by the time he leaves office in January 2009.

At the start of his tour in Israel on Wednesday, Bush warned that Iran posed "a threat to world peace" and should not be allowed to develop the know-how to build a nuclear weapon. Iran denies seeking nuclear arms.

But Gulf states are wary about any military action against their neighbor and Kuwaiti officials have said the emirate will not allow the United States to use its territory as a launchpad for any strike on Iran.

Tensions between Tehran and Washington escalated on the eve of Bush's tour over a naval confrontation in the strategic Strait of Hormuz last Sunday in which the Pentagon said US warships were threatened by Iranian speedboats.

The Pentagon has since said that Iranian speedboats approached US naval vessels in two other incidents in December, including one in which a US warship fired warning shots.

"Please do not misread restraint for lack of resolve," the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen, said in Washington.

Tehran has accused Washington of using the incident in the waterway — a vital conduit for energy supplies — as a propaganda stunt to paint Iran in a bad light during Bush's trip.

After Kuwait, Bush heads on Friday to Bahrain — which hosts the US Navy's Fifth Fleet — then on to the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia before wrapping up his tour in Egypt.

He arrived in Kuwait after making his first presidential trip to Israel and the West Bank, where he said he believed a peace treaty would be signed within a year and called on Arab nations to reach out to the Jewish state.