By Fred W. Baker III
American Forces Press Service
April 10, 2008 - President Bush today directed Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates to shorten deployment lengths for U.S. soldiers in Iraq from 15 to 12 months, starting in August. Bush said he made the decision to reduce the strain on the force and because security improvements in Iraq have allowed for the withdrawal of all five surge combat brigades by the end of July.
He also said that officials would ensure troops have at least a year at home between deployments. The change goes into affect Aug. 1 and will not affect those already deployed there.
"Our nation owes a special thanks to the soldiers and families who've supported this extended deployment. We owe a special thanks to all who served in the cause for freedom in Iraq," Bush said.
He also directly addressed the troops, saying that the war in Iraq is not "endless," and that as conditions there improve, more troops could return home.
"The day will come when Iraq is a capable partner of the United States. The day will come when Iraq is a stable democracy that helps fight our common enemies and promote our common interests in the Middle East," Bush said. "And when that day arrives, you'll come home with pride in your success and the gratitude of your whole nation."
Bush heard positive reports on conditions in Iraq from Army Gen. David H. Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan C. Crocker this week. He cited the success of the surge brigades as setting the conditions for the troop withdrawals.
Before the surge a little more than a year ago, al-Qaida was safe in bases across the country attacking coalition forces. Now, Bush said, they are on the defensive and forces are working to deliver a "crippling blow."
"Fifteen months ago, Americans were worried about the prospect of failure in Iraq. Today, thanks to the surge, we've renewed and revived the prospect of success," Bush said.
After the withdrawal of the remaining surge combat brigades this summer, Petraeus has asked for 45 days to assess conditions on the ground and reposition troops.
"I've told him he'll have all the time he needs," Bush said. But the president warned against calling it a "pause," saying that description is misleading. "None of our operations in Iraq will be on hold," he said.
Bush said all U.S. efforts in the country are aimed at a clear goal: a free Iraq that can protect its people, support itself economically, and take charge of its own political affairs.
During the course of transitioning the country to Iraqi control, Bush said, coalition forces will step up their offense, becoming more targeted in their operations as Iraqi security forces take over more of the general security concerns. Also, more provinces will be transferred to Iraqi control as the United States moves into an "over-watch" role.
Economically, Iraq is moving forward, Bush said. Its economy is growing, oil revenue is on the rise, and capital investment is expanding. This is changing the U.S. role, Bush said. Americans now are spending little on large-scale construction costs, and Iraqis are paying for most of the country's army and police, he said.
Politically, the country has seen "bottom-up" progress, as provincial and tribal leaders are turning to local political structures and taking charge of their own affairs. Provincial elections are planned this year, with national elections planned for next year.
On the diplomatic front, Bush is putting a full-court press on Iraq's neighbors to play a more supportive role in its stabilization and growth. The president has directed Crocker and Petraeus to stop in Saudi Arabia on their way back to Iraq. He also is sending senior diplomats for talks in Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait and Egypt.
Each country will be encouraged to reopen their embassies in Baghdad and increase their support for Iraq, Bush said.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will travel to the third Expanded Neighbors Conference in Kuwait City and the second International Compact with Iraq meeting in Stockholm.
"A stable, successful, independent Iraq is in the strategic interests of Arab nations, and all who want peace in the Middle East should support a stable, democratic Iraq. And we will urge all nations to increase their support this year," Bush said.
Bush also issued a clear warning to Iran to stop funding and training militias fighting in Iraq.
"If Iran makes the right choice, America will encourage a peaceful relationship between Iran and Iraq. If Iran makes the wrong choice, America will act to protect our interests and our troops and our Iraqi partners," Bush said.
In the 15-minute speech, Bush defended the cost of the war and called on Congress to pass an emergency funding request that will be presented to the session soon.
The president called the war "a burden worth bearing" and said that national interests require success there.
"Iraq is the convergence point for two of the greatest threats to America in this new century: al-Qaida and Iran," Bush said. "If we fail there, al-Qaida would claim a propaganda victory of colossal proportions, and they could gain safe havens in Iraq from which to attack the United States, our friends and our allies. Iran would work to fill the vacuum in Iraq, and our failure would embolden its radical leaders and fuel their ambitions to dominate the region."
Success in Iraq deal a historic blow to the global terrorist movement and a severe setback for Iran, he said.
"It would demonstrate to a watching world that mainstream Arabs reject the ideology of al-Qaida and mainstream Shiia reject the ideology of Iran's radical regime," Bush said. "It would give America a new partner with a growing economy. ... And in all these ways, it would bring us closer to our most important goal -- making the American people safer here at home."