WASHINGTON (AFP) — With less than five months left in his term, President George W. Bush was to announce Tuesday he is ordering a modest US troop withdrawal from Iraq and ramping up force levels in Afghanistan.
Bush, in remarks prepared for delivery to the US National Defense University and released by the White House late Monday, was also to lump Pakistan in with both countries among major battlegrounds in the global war on terrorism.
The vastly unpopular US president could still unveil other strategic shifts in the two conflicts before leaving office in January, but the speech strongly suggested any large-scale withdrawal from Iraq will fall to his successor.
"If the progress in Iraq continues to hold, General (David) Petraeus and our military leaders believe additional reductions will be possible in the first half of 2009," Bush said, referring to the top US commander there.
For now, Bush said he will bring home 8,000 of the more than 140,000 US troops in Iraq in the next few months -- about half out by the time the White House changes hands -- and send roughly 4,500 more soldiers to Afghanistan.
"Afghanistan's success is critical to the security of America and our partners in the free world. And for all the good work we have done in that country, it is clear we must do even more," he said.
Bush also had a firm message for Pakistan, saying it has a "responsibility" to fight extremists "because every nation has an obligation to govern its own territory and make certain that it does not become a safe haven for terror."
His message came amid media reports of multiple strikes inside Pakistan recently by US or international troops based in Afghanistan, which accuses its neighbor of abetting or at least turning a blind eye to cross-border violence.
Without commenting directly on a US strike in Afghanistan that Kabul says killed 90 civilians, Bush declared that "the history of warfare" shows such losses are inevitable but that the United States "mourns every innocent life lost."
With the deeply unpopular Iraq war shaping the fight to succeed him, Bush said in the speech that the US draw-down was possible only because fragile US and Iraqi gains have a new "degree of durability."
He said that about 3,400 combat support forces will leave Iraq over the next several months; one Marine battalion will come home by November; and one US Army combat brigade will return in February 2009.
Bush tied the withdrawal to security gains from the "surge" of roughly 30,000 US troops he ordered to Iraq in January 2007 in a high-stakes bid to wrest the war-torn country from the grips of sectarian violence.
"The progress in Iraq is still fragile and reversible," said Bush, who has successfully resisted calls for a withdrawal timetable in the five and a half years since the March 2003 US-led invasion to topple Saddam Hussein.
Looking to Afghanistan, Bush declared "as we learned in Iraq, the best way to restore the confidence of the people is to restore basic security -- and that requires more troops."
The remarks came eight weeks before the November 4 US election in which Bush's preferred successor, Senator John McCain, has pinned his hopes on his early and fervent support of the "surge."
McCain's rival, Democrat Barack Obama, has pledged to begin troop withdrawals immediately if elected, and foresees most combat troops being out of Iraq by late 2010.
Recent polls show two out of three Americans oppose the war and want to see a quick withdrawal, but many view the "surge" as a success story, and Bush has repeatedly said that US politics will not shape his decision.
But Iraqi Prime Mininster Nuri al-Maliki has said that Washington and Baghdad have agreed that foreign forces will be gone by 2011 as part of talks on an agreement to govern the US troop presence in Iraq after its UN mandate lapses December 31. The White House denies that the deal is done.
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