Bush announces Iraq troop withdrawals

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The Independent US

The United States will withdraw 8,000 troops from Iraq by February and launch a "quiet surge" in Afghanistan, President George Bush said today.

In what will probably be his last stamp on the war that has defined his presidency, Mr Bush's move was seen as cautious with the scope and pace of the US troop withdrawals from Iraq being smaller than anticipated.

It reflected his desire not to jeopardise important security gains in the region.

The president also turned his attention to "where this struggle first began" in Afghanistan and said the US and its allies, including the UK, were launching a "quiet surge" of troops there.

Mr Bush, who credits a US troop surge in Iraq last summer with its improved security situation, confirmed around 3,500 additional US troops were being sent to Afghanistan.

"Here is the bottom line," the president said.

"While the enemy in Iraq is dangerous, we have seized the offensive, and Iraqi forces are becomingly increasingly capable of leading and winning the fight."

In his speech at the National Defence University in Washington, Mr Bush hailed last week's handover of Anbar Province, once Iraq's deadliest region but now one of its most stable, to Iraqi civilian authorities as "a moment of success in the war on terror".

It was "a province transformed", with attacks down by more than 90%, he said.

He added that while progress in Iraq was "still fragile and reversible", General David Petraeus, the US commander in Iraq, and US Ambassador Ryan Crocker had reported that "there now appears to be a 'degree of durability' to the gains we have made".

"The steps I have described today will help us build on this success, set America's engagement in Iraq on a strong and steady course and allow our troops to come home in victory," he said to applause.

Around 146,000 US troops are in Iraq and about 8,000 will be returning home by February, the president said.

He added that further withdrawals would be possible in the first half of next year if progress continued, but that he was unlikely to be in the Oval Office when the next decision was taken.

If elected, Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama has advocated pulling all US combat forces out of Iraq within 16 months of taking office in January, while his Republican rival John McCain has said he would rely on the advice of US military commanders to determine the timing and pace of troop reductions.

But Mr Bush also devoted about half of his speech to the situation in Afghanistan, which he described as "the front where this struggle first began".

Both US presidential candidates have said more troops are needed there to tackle a resurgence of the Taliban and a growth in violence.

At the Nato summit in Bucharest in April, Mr Bush announced the US was deploying 3,500 more US Marines to Afghanistan and additional forces would be available in 2009.

US allies, including the UK, had also sent more forces, he said.

"These troop increases represent a 'quiet surge' in Afghanistan," he said.

"In all, the number of American troops in the country increased from less than 21,000 two years ago to nearly 31,000 today.

"These troop increases have made a difference, yet huge challenges in Afghanistan remain.

"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 announced that a Marine battalion that had been scheduled to go to Iraq in November would go to Afghanistan instead, and that would be followed by one Army combat brigade.

Later today, Mr Bush will make a low-key trip to the Walter Reed Army Medical Centre to visit wounded troops.

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