By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
Sept. 13, 2007 - In addition to a drawdown of surge forces in Iraq, President Bush said tonight that he also had accepted Army Gen. David H. Petraeus' recommendation to begin transitioning to the next phase of the U.S. strategy in Iraq in December. "As terrorists are defeated, civil society takes root, and the Iraqis assume more control over their own security, our mission in Iraq will evolve," the president said during a televised address from the Oval Office.
"Over time, our troops will shift from leading operations, to partnering with Iraqi forces, and eventually to overwatching those forces," he said.
Bush said this mission transition will enable U.S. troops to focus more on a limited set of critical tasks: counter terrorism operations, and training, equipping and supporting Iraqi forces.
After consulting with the Joint Chiefs of Staff and other members of his national security team, Bush said, he agreed to this mission shift and directed Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan C. Crocker to update their joint campaign plan for Iraq. This, the president said, will provide a basis for adjusting the military and civilian resources it requires.
Bush said he also directed Petraeus and Crocker to deliver another report to Congress in March. "At that time, they will provide a fresh assessment of the situation in Iraq and of the troop levels and resources we need to meet our national security objectives," he said.
The president announced tonight that he also had approved Petraeus' recommendation to begin reducing the U.S. troop strength in Iraq, based on progress being made.
"Because of this success, General Petraeus believes we have now reached the point where we can maintain our security gains with fewer American forces," the president said. "He has recommended that we not replace about 2,200 Marines scheduled to leave Anbar province later this month. In addition, he says it will soon be possible to bring home an Army combat brigade, for a total force reduction of 5,700 troops by Christmas. And he expects that by July, we will be able to reduce our troop levels in Iraq from 20 combat brigades to 15."
Bush said he based his decisions on troop levels in Iraq to "return on success" and said that the more success that takes place, the more U.S. troops can return home.
"And in all we do, I will ensure that our commanders on the ground have the troops and flexibility they need to defeat the enemy," he said.
Bush extended praise to all servicemembers, who -- along with intelligence officers, diplomats and civilians serving in Iraq -- have made a difference in Iraq.
"The progress I have reported tonight is in large part because of your courage and hard effort," he said. "You are serving far from home. Our nation is grateful for your sacrifices, and the sacrifices of your families."
Bush noted that he had received an e-mail earlier this year from the family of a National Guard soldier killed in Baghdad, Army Spec. Brandon Stout of Michigan. "His family has suffered greatly," the president said. "Yet in their sorrow, they see larger purpose."
Stout's widow, Audrey, wrote that her husband felt called to serve and knew what he was fighting for, and his parents, Tracy and Jeff, said they believe in the cause he gave his life for, Bush said. "We believe this is a war of good and evil, and we must win even if it cost the life of our own son," Bush said they wrote. "Freedom is not free."
"This country is blessed to have Americans like Brandon Stout, who make extraordinary sacrifices to keep us safe from harm," the president said. "They are doing so in a fight that is just and right and necessary. And now it falls to us to finish the work they have begun."
Bush said the success of a free Iraq is critical to U.S. security. A free Iraq will deny al Qaeda a safe haven and become an anchor of stability in the region "A free Iraq will be our partner in the fight against terror,- and that will make us safer here at home," he said.
In contrast, if the United States were driven from Iraq, it would embolden extremists and set up a chain of events that would be catastrophic to the United States, Bush said.
"We would leave our children to face a far more dangerous world," he said. "And as we saw on September the 11th, 2001, those dangers can reach our cities and kill our people."
Bush said he disagrees with those who say gains being made in Iraq are too little, too late.
"It is never too late to deal a blow to al Qaeda. It is never too late to advance freedom," he said. "And it is never too late to support our troops in a fight they can win."