WASHINGTON — The new timeline for U.S. troop withdrawals from Iraq? There isn't one.
The American public is tired of the war. Democrats are calling for a U.S. troop exodus. But President Bush said Thursday that he told his top commander in Iraq that he can take "all the time he needs" to decide whether more troops can come home after the latest round of cutbacks is completed in July.
That wasn't the news war critics had hoped for, but in his latest update on Iraq, Bush said it wasn't possible yet to order additional drawdowns.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates offered a sober forecast of future troop levels in Iraq, too, saying he sees no chance that the number of servicemen and women will drop to 100,000 by the end of the year.
That guarantees a heavy American military presence as the war grinds into its sixth year, and the Bush presidency draws to a close.
With 285 days remaining in his presidency, Bush set the course of the war in a speech following two days of testimony before a skeptical Congress by Gen. David Petraeus and the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker.
Petraeus on Thursday revealed for the first time that he had quietly visited several Mideast countries in an effort to slow the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq. The Associated Press learned that the trips, all taken since September, were to Jordan, Kuwait, Bahrain, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates.
Bush said that after the troop withdrawals, which already have been announced, end in July, he would give Petraeus 45 days to evaluate the effects of the drawdown. That would be followed by an indefinite period to reassess U.S. troop strength in Iraq, where new flare-ups of extremist violence are threatening to undercut security gains.
Bush argued that last year's troop buildup had succeeded in reducing violence, tamping down al-Qaida in Iraq and allowing normal daily activities to resume in many areas. Because of that progress, Bush said, an already planned reduction in troops can be completed in July.
"Serious and complex challenges remain in Iraq, from the presence of al-Qaida to the destructive influence of Iran, to hard compromises needed for further political progress," Bush said in a White House address. "Yet with the surge, a major strategic shift has occurred. ... This war is difficult, it is not endless."
Gates appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday and backtracked from testimony he gave last fall when he said he hoped that drawdowns could continue throughout the year, which would have left about 10 brigades — or roughly 100,000 troops — in Iraq at year's end. When the committee's Democratic chairman, Sen. Carl Levin, asked Gates whether he still thought that was possible, Gates said: "No, sir."
In his White House speech, Bush also said he was ordering that Army combat tours be trimmed by three months.
It was a response to heavy pressure from military commanders who say long, multiple deployments have strained the Army to its limits. Army units heading to Iraq after Aug. 1 will serve 12 months instead of 15 months.
Critics of the president's war policy quickly noted that the order would not affect U.S. forces already deployed on the front lines.
"The president still doesn't understand that America's limited resources cannot support his limitless war," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said. "Let me be clear: This is not a so-called troop pause. With today's announcement, the president has signaled to the American people that he has no intention of bringing home any more troops.
"Instead he is leaving all the tough decisions to the next administration. President Bush has an exit strategy for only one man, himself, on January 20, 2009."
Bush smiled briefly when he walked out of the Blue Room and strode across a red carpet in the Cross Hall of the White House to a standing ovation from Vice President Dick Cheney, his top military and diplomatic advisers and members of veteran service organizations. His face turned solemn as he began his 18-minute progress report on the war — one of the last of his presidency.
Bush acknowledged that the stress on U.S. forces was "real," but said top military brass had assured him that the all-volunteer force was strong and resilient enough to win the war on terror. "The surest way to depress morale and weaken the force would be to lose in Iraq," he said.
Democrats who want Bush's job weren't fazed.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., said the American people have run out of time and patience on Iraq. She said the military buildup has failed to yield political progress in Iraq, and that if elected president, she will end the war responsibly. "It's time for the president to answer the question being asked of him: In the wake of the failed surge, what is the endgame in Iraq?"
Her opponent in the presidential campaign, Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., said Bush had to reduce rotations because the Army told him they couldn't sustain the current rotation schedule. "People are not being trained properly, they are exhausted. ... I don't know how many families I meet where the spouse, the father, may not even know a 2-year-old baby or a 3-year-old child because they've just been deployed overseas so much," Obama said.
Bush stayed steadfast on his war policy even though his approval rating hit a new low of 28 percent in an AP-Ipsos polling issued Thursday.
The president said the price of failure in Iraq was foreboding: Al-Qaida would claim a propaganda victory of "colossal proportions." Terrorists would use Iraq as a launch pad for attacks on the U.S. and its allies. Iran would fill the political vacuum. The hardline Taliban regime, which previously ran Afghanistan, and al-Qaida in Pakistan would be emboldened. Massive humanitarian casualties would follow. The threat of another Sept. 11 would rise.
Bush challenged Iran anew. He said the regime in Tehran could live in peace with its neighbor, or keep funding and training militant groups that terrorize Iraqi people and destabilize the nation — charges the Iranian government denies.
"If Iran makes the right choice, America will encourage a peaceful relationship between Iran and Iraq," Bush said. If it makes the wrong choice, Bush said "America will act to protect our interests, and our troops, and our Iraqi partners." He did not elaborate.
Bush also pushed Arab nations to heighten their diplomatic presence in Baghdad as a sign of support for its fledgling government. That also would serve to counter Iran's rising influence in the Middle East and its support of terrorists and extremists in Iraq.
He dispatched Petraeus and Crocker to stop in Saudi Arabia on their way back to Iraq, and directed senior diplomats to meet and urge leaders in Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait and Egypt to reopen their embassies in Baghdad and increase their support for Iraq this year.
Bush also called on Congress to send him a spending bill for Iraq that does not include any timetables for troop withdrawals or exceed the $108 billion he has requested. Democrats want to add money to stimulate the economy with road-building funds, additional unemployment benefits, a summer jobs program and additional food stamp benefits. Bush said he would veto the bill under those conditions.