US blames 'outrageous' killing on al-Qa'ida

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Facing growing public anger over the Iraq conflict, George Bush continued to insist last night that the surge against insurgents and al-Qa'ida was working and that some US troops would be home for Christmas. "Our success in meeting these objectives now allows us to begin bringing some of our troops home," the President said in an Oval Office address to the nation. "The more successful we are, the more troops can return."

However, the assassination of Sheikh Abdul-Sattar Abu Risha undermined the assertion that security was improving. The killing was condemned by the White House as an "unfortunate and outrageous act" in which al-Qa'ida had a hand. "This is a sheikh who was one of the first to come forward to want to work with the US," said White House spokeswoman Dana Perino. "Remember, al-Qa'ida was killing some of the sheikhs' children and put them in a cooler to deliver to the sheikhs."

In his 18-minute address on national television, Mr Bush was also expected to promise that the American presence in Iraq would extend far into the future "beyond my Presidency", adding: "The success of a free Iraq is critical to the security of the United States."

Aides said he would confirm a partial US withdrawal from Iraq. Critics of the war immediately dismissed the gesture.

Mr Bush has apparently accepted recommendations by the US commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, that combat forces should be reduced from 20 brigades to 15. Mr Bush's order is intended to bring the number of troops down to about 132,000 – where it was before the "surge".

General Petraeus was accused in a newspaper advertisement placed in The New York Times of doing the White House's bidding. "General Petraeus, or General Betray Us?" asked, an anti-war group. Yesterday, it emerged that the paper agreed to a reduced rate of $65,000 (£32,000) for the full-page advertisement, compared to its usual rate of $181,692.

The President was also expected to refer last night to the improving security in Anbar province, to support his change of strategy. Last week, he made a surprise visit to Anbar, rather than Baghdad, to highlight improvements he said had been brought about by the temporary alliance between US and tribal forces.

During his trip, Mr Bush declared that the vast desert province was an example of what could happen elsewhere in Iraq.

The Pentagon dismissed suggestions that yesterday's assassination was a major setback for the US military. However, General Petraeus called it " a terrible loss for Anbar and all of Iraq".

* An al-Qa'ida-linked insurgent group yesterday posted a video which it claimed showed the body of a US pilot killed in Iraq last year, a photograph of his ID card and brief footage of his aircraft's wreckage site. It blamed Mr Bush for the death and for pushing "thousands of American soldiers to the incinerator".