President Bush May Withdraw US Troops From Iraq

In a surprise visit to Iraq on Tuesday, US President George Bush announced that he may soon begin withdrawing US troops from Iraq.

Mr Bush’s visit came as General David Petraeus and US Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker prepare to deliver their much-anticipated progress report on Iraq to Congress next week.

President Bush’s announcement will help head off the war’s most vocal critics on Capitol Hill while also helping him to regain some control over the debate, as will his chosen location for breaking the news – al Asad air force base in Anbar province, a former insurgency stronghold that seemed all but lost to US forces only a year ago. While still bitterly opposed to the US occupation, local tribal leaders in Anbar have joined forces with US troops over the past year to drive al Qaeda militants out of their province.

“General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker tell me if the kind of success we are now seeing continues, it will be possible to maintain the same level of security with fewer American forces,” said Mr Bush. “Those decisions will be based on a calm assessment by our military commanders on the conditions on the ground, not a nervous reaction by Washington politicians to poll results in the media.”

Flanked by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley and Secretary of Defence Robert Gates, Mr Bush received a warm welcome from US troops at the base.

He also discussed security issues and political progress with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, President Jalal Talabani and Anbar tribal chiefs in what the Pentagon dubbed a ‘war council’.

The very appearance of the Shiite Prime Minister and Kurdish President alongside local Sunni leaders in Anbar also helped to create a much-needed display of Iraqi political unity.

Last week, a draft assessment of the US Government Accountability Office reportedly found that Iraq had failed to meet 13 of 18 benchmarks set by Congress as a condition of continued US assistance – including basic political reconciliation benchmarks. Today, the GAO’s assessment will get its first formal Congressional hearing with the US Senate Foreign Relations committee.

The GAO assessment, and the forthcoming joint Petraeus-Crocker progress report, will undoubtedly set the stage for a fiery showdown between President Bush and anti-war Democrats in the US Congress.

It is also possible that enough Republicans will soon vote with Democrats in Congress to force troop withdrawals from Iraq and distance themselves from the deeply unpopular war, especially in the lead up to next year’s Congressional and Presidential elections.

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