Bush: U.S. to stay in Iraq till war is won
President does not set timetable for withdrawal of troops
President Bush addresses the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, on Wednesday.
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ANNAPOLIS, Maryland (CNN) -- President Bush countered diminishing support for the U.S.-led Iraq war on Wednesday in a speech outlining what he believes must be accomplished before withdrawing any forces.
The president did not satisfy critics who've called for a definitive timetable for troops to pull out, saying it would send the wrong message to terrorists and certain conditions must be met first.
"As Iraqi forces gain experience and the political process advances, we will be able to decrease our troop level in Iraq without losing our capability to defeat the terrorists," Bush said in his address before students at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. (Watch Bush speak before enthusiastic students at Annapolis -- 4:57)
He rejected calls by some members of Congress that U.S. forces withdraw immediately. (Reaction from lawmakers)
"Setting an artificial deadline to withdraw would vindicate the terrorist tactics of beheadings and suicide bombings and mass murder and invite new attacks on America," Bush said.
"To all who wear the uniform, I make you this pledge: America will not run in the face of car bombers and assassins so long as I am your commander-in-chief."
Reid: 'Tired rhetoric'
Immediately following the speech, Senate Minority Leader Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nevada, said Bush "recycled his tired rhetoric of 'stay the course' and once again missed an opportunity to lay out a real strategy for success in Iraq that will bring our troops safely home."
Reid said: "Our troops, their families, and the American people deserve a clear strategy with military, economic and political measures to be met in order to successfully complete our mission."
Sen. Jack Reed, D-Rhode Island, said Bush failed to lay out a "coherent, detailed plan" to stabilize Iraq in a "reasonable time." (Watch the Democratic response -- 4:02)
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Michigan, the ranking member of the Senate's Armed Services Commitee, said he had wanted more details from the president.
"The mission is so broadly defined in his strategy paper -- 'Our mission in Iraq is to win the war' -- that it will be hard to tell when we have achieved it," Levin said.
"I am disappointed that although the president said he would focus in his speech on the training of Iraqi security forces, he didn't outline his specific goals for training these forces -- and then tell us what achieving these goals would mean for reducing American forces in Iraq in the coming year."
But not all Democrats condemned Bush's speech. Democratic moderate Sen. Ken Salazar of Colorado praised the speech, calling it a "step in the right direction" that "begins to address the Senate's call for a successful exit strategy with measurable benchmarks."
Meanwhile, a new poll found most Americans do not believe Bush has a plan that will achieve victory.
But the CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll released Wednesday night also found nearly six in 10 Americans said U.S. troops should not be withdrawn from Iraq until certain goals are achieved. (Full story)
A three-track strategy
The White House went on the offensive just hours prior to Bush's speech by releasing a portion of a classified document that it said outlines strategy for victory in Iraq. (White House plan [PDF])
The declassified portion of the plan calls for pursuing three tracks: political, security and economic. The tracks are broken down into eight pillars, including defeating terrorists and neutralizing the insurgency; helping Iraq strengthen its economy; and increasing international support for Iraq. (Full story)
"We should not fear the debate in Washington," Bush said. "It's one of the great strengths of our democracy that we can discuss our differences openly and honestly, even at times of war.
"Your service makes that freedom possible. And today, because of the men and women in our military, people are expressing their opinions freely in the streets of Baghdad as well."
Bush, who has repeatedly said that U.S. forces would leave Iraq when Iraqis can stand on their own, detailed Iraqi successes among its own forces.
The "coalition has handed over roughly 90 square miles of Baghdad province to Iraqi security forces," Bush said. "Iraqi battalions have taken over responsibility for areas in south-central Iraq, sectors of southeast Iraq, sectors of western Iraq, and sectors of north-central Iraq."
And the president said Iraqi troops were more prepared for battle.
"At this time last year there were only a handful of Iraqi battalions ready for combat," Bush said. "Now there are over 120 Iraqi army and police combat battalions in the fight against the terrorists, typically comprised of between 350 and 800 Iraqi forces.
"Of these, about 80 Iraqi battalions are fighting side-by-side with coalition forces, and about 40 others are taking the lead in the fight." (Watch a fact-checking of Bush's speech -- 2:28)
'Rejectionists, Saddamists and terrorists'
Bush characterized the U.S. enemy in Iraq as "a combination of rejectionists, Saddamists and terrorists." The terrorist group, he said, "is the smallest but the most lethal" of the three.
"Our strategy in Iraq is clear," Bush said. "Our tactics are flexible and dynamic. We have changed them as conditions required and they are bringing us victory against a brutal enemy."
Bush said about 160,000 American troops are in Iraq, as the country prepares for its third round of voting this year. The Pentagon says it hopes to reduce the number to 138,000 by the summer and 100,000 by the end of 2006.
"Most Americans want two things in Iraq: They want to see our troops win and they want to see our troops come home as soon as possible," Bush said. "And those are my goals as well. I will settle for nothing less than complete victory."
Bush's rival in the 2004 presidential election, Sen. John Kerry, D-Massachusetts, said the Iraq debate is "not about an artificial date for withdrawal," and criticized Bush for not acknowledging how strong the insurgency is that U.S. forces are up against in Iraq.
"This debate is not about an artificial date for withdrawal ... the United States Senate had a vote, a Republican resolution and a Democrat resolution and neither sought to seek an artificial date for withdrawal," Kerry said. "What it did, on the Democratic side, seek to do was set an estimated timetable for success, which will permit the withdrawal of our troops."
Iraqis are set to select a permanent National Assembly on December 15, after choosing a transitional parliament in January and approving a constitution in October.
The Pentagon has said that the level of troops is likely to go back down to the summer's level after the election.
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