By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
Jan. 28, 2008 - President Bush used his final State of the Union address tonight to praise strides made in Iraq over the past year and to urge Congress to ensure U.S. troops have the resources and support they need to build on that success. With Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and several invited Iraq war veterans looking on, Bush told a joint session of Congress the new strategy in Iraq that became fully operational in mid-June "has achieved results few of us could have imagined just one year ago."
"When we met last year, many said containing the violence was impossible," Bush said. "A year later, high-profile terrorist attacks are down, civilian deaths are down and sectarian killings are down."
Similarly, militia extremists were wreaking havoc last year in large areas of Iraq. "A year later, coalition and Iraqi forces have killed or captured hundreds of militia fighters," Bush said. "And Iraqis of all backgrounds increasingly realize that defeating these militia fighters is critical to the future of their country."
Also last year, al Qaeda had sanctuaries in many areas of Iraq, and its leaders had offered U.S. forces safe passage out of the country. "Today, it is al Qaeda that is searching for safe passage," Bush said. "They have been driven from many of the strongholds they once held, and over the past year, we have captured or killed thousands of extremists in Iraq, including hundreds of key al Qaeda leaders and operatives."
Bush cited a tape released last month in which Osama bin Laden railed against Iraqi tribal leaders who had turned on al Qaeda and admitted that coalition forces are growing stronger in Iraq.
"Ladies and gentlemen, some may deny the surge is working," the president told the chamber. "But among the terrorists there is no doubt. Al Qaeda is on the run in Iraq, and this enemy will be defeated."
Bush attributed the progress made to "the valor of our troops and the brilliance of their commanders." He cited the success of the troop surge and a new, expanded mission aimed at denying terrorists sanctuary and working with Iraqi forces to protect the Iraqi people.
"The Iraqi people quickly realized that something dramatic had happened," he said. "Those who had worried that America was preparing to abandon them instead saw ... our forces moving into neighborhoods, clearing out the terrorists and staying behind to ensure the enemy did not return." U.S. troops worked side by side with provincial reconstruction teams to ensure improvements in Iraqi's daily lives followed those security improvements, Bush said.
Meanwhile, the Iraqis launched a surge of their own, Bush said. Sunni tribal leaders grew tired of al Qaeda's brutality and started the "Anbar Awakening," an uprising that sparked similar movements across Iraq.
"And today, this grassroots surge includes more than 80,000 Iraqi citizens who are fighting the terrorists," Bush said. "The government in Baghdad has stepped forward as well, adding more than 100,000 new Iraqi soldiers and police during the past year."
Bush cited signs of political progress as well: the Iraqi parliament's passage of pension law and de-Baathification reform and the central government's sharing of oil revenues with the provinces.
As this progress continues, Bush vowed that the United States won't stop short of seeing the mission through.
He conceded that while the enemies in Iraq "have been hit hard," the job there is far from over. "The enemy is still dangerous, and more work remains," he said. "They are not yet defeated, and we can still expect tough fighting ahead."
Still, he said, progress has been made and must continue.
"Our objective in the coming year is to sustain and build on the gains we made in 2007, while transitioning to the next phase of our strategy," he said. "American troops are shifting from leading operations, to partnering with Iraqi forces, and, eventually, to a protective overwatch mission."
As this effort continues, Bush said, more U.S. forces will be able to begin returning home. So far, one Army brigade combat team and a Marine expeditionary unit that were part of the surge have returned without being replaced. In the coming months, four additional Army brigades and two more Marine battalions will return without replacement. "Taken together, this means more than 20,000 of our troops are coming home," he said.
Decisions about any additional drawdowns will be based on conditions on the ground and commanders' recommendations, the president said.
Speaking directly to the troops on the front lines, Bush pledged that the country will ensure they have everything they need to succeed in Iraq.
"In the past year, you have done everything we have asked of you, and more," he said. "Our nation is grateful for your courage. We are proud of your accomplishments."
Bush followed with a pledge: "In the fight ahead, you will have all you need to protect our nation. And I ask the Congress to meet its responsibilities to these brave men and women by fully funding our troops."
The mission in Iraq has been difficult and trying for the United States, the president conceded. "But it is in the vital interest of the United States that we succeed," he said. "A free Iraq will deny al Qaeda safe haven. A free Iraq will show millions across the Middle East that a future of liberty is possible. And a free Iraq will be a friend of America, a partner in fighting terror and a source of stability in a dangerous part of the world."
A failed Iraq, in contrast, "would embolden extremists, strengthen Iran and give terrorists a base from which to launch new attacks on our friends, our allies and our homeland," Bush said. "The enemy has made its intentions clear."
Bush insisted that the United States won't rest until the enemy has been defeated.
"We must do the difficult work today, so that years from now people will look back and say that this generation rose to the moment, prevailed in a tough fight and left behind a more hopeful region and a safer America," he said.