Bush freezing Iraq troop levels

President George W. Bush on Thursday ordered an indefinite halt to US troop withdrawals from Iraq come July, warning that the strife-torn country remains too fragile five years after Baghdad fell.

“Serious and complex challenges remain in Iraq, from the presence of Al-Qaeda to the destructive influence of Iran to hard compromises needed for further political progress,” Bush said in a speech defending his strategy.

With his fellow Republicans worried about the vastly unpopular conflict’s cost in November elections, Bush said he was also shortening troop deployments, and promised that “while this war is difficult, it is not endless.”

Still, the president’s remarks underlined that his successor in January 2009 will decide whether and how to end the war, which is now in its sixth year, after claiming the lives of more than 4,000 US troops and countless Iraqis.

US Defense Secretary Robert Gates said that, while he expected more drawdowns if the situation improves, he did not think that US force levels could drop to 100,000 by year’s end as he had once hoped.

In his speech, Bush explained that he was accepting advice from the top US commander in Iraq, Army General David Petraeus, and the US ambassador in Baghdad, Ryan Crocker, who testified to US lawmakers for two days this week.

“I’ve accepted these recommendations,” he said, underlining the central one of pursuing a limited drawdown from 20 brigades of combat troops to 15 brigades as scheduled by the end of July, but freezing further withdrawals.

“Beyond that, General Petraeus says he’ll need time to consolidate his forces and assess how this reduced American presence will affect conditions on the ground before making measured recommendations on further reductions,” he said.

“And I’ve told him he’ll have all the time he needs,” the president said, without setting a timeframe.

But Gates, choosing words that Petraeus had explicitly rejected in Senate testimony earlier this week, told the Senate Armed Services Committee there would be a “brief pause” for consolidation and evaluation after July.

“I do not anticipate this period of review to be an extended one, and I would emphasize that the hope, depending on conditions on the ground, is to reduce our presence further this fall,” Gates said.

He said Petraeus should make a recommendation on further troop cuts at the end of a 45-day review period in mid-September. The general indicated this week that he might, or might not, do that, depending on the circumstances.

His testimony and that of Admiral William Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, reflect underlying tensions within the military and the administration over the pace and scope of the drawdown at a time when Afghanistan poses a growing challenge.

Facing warnings from top military commanders that the war is putting a heavy strain on US forces and their families, Bush also said he was cutting tours of duty for troops deployed after August 1, from 15 months to one year.

“We’ll also ensure that our Army units will have at least a year home for every year in the field,” he said.

Democrats, including White House hopefuls Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, have stepped up calls to bring more US troops home, and said Bush’s only strategy is to hand off the conflict to his successor.

“We cannot press Iraq’s leaders to resolve their differences and spend their money if our plan is to stay in Iraq indefinitely,” said Obama.

“As president, I will do what this president has failed to do: recognize reality and end the war responsibly,” Clinton said.

Bush, who brushed off such criticisms as “simply wrong,” also said he was launching an all-out diplomatic offensive to rally Arab support for Iraq and warned arch-foe Iran that it faced “a choice” on how to treat its neighbor.

Bush lumped Tehran and Al-Qaeda together as “two of the greatest threats to America in this new century” and left little doubt that he was threatening Iran with military action if it threatens US interests in Iraq.

“If Iran makes the right choice, America will encourage a peaceful relationship between Iran and Iraq. If Iran makes the wrong choice, America will act to protect our interests and our troops and our Iraqi partners,” he said.

His speech came as two US air strikes in Baghdad’s embattled Sadr City district killed six people as fighting flared for a fifth straight day between Shiite militiamen and security forces hunting mortar and rocket teams.

Separately, Petraeus called for a “very, very sensitive” approach in dealing with militias allied with radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, warning that overly harsh measures could lead them to abandon a unilateral ceasefire Sadr imposed in August.

On the diplomatic front, Bush said he was ordering Petraeus and Crocker to Saudi Arabia and sending top US diplomats to Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Egypt to convince them to reopen their embassies in Baghdad.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will also travel to an April 22 regional conference on Iraq in Kuwait and an international meeting on Iraq in Stockholm, officials said.