American President George Bush confronted doubts about his war policy Wednesday, asserting more Iraqi security forces are taking the lead in battle but saying it's still uncertain when U.S. forces can be withdrawn.
"No war has ever been won on a timetable," according to a new White House strategy document.
Facing endless criticism about the conflict, Bush went on the offensive with the release of a 35-page plan titled "Our National Strategy for Victory in Iraq."
The plan says increasing numbers of Iraqi troops have been equipped and trained, a democratic government is being forged, Iraq's economy is being rebuilt and U.S. military and civilian presence will change as conditions improve.
"We expect, but cannot guarantee that our force posture will change over the next year, as the political process advances and Iraqi security forces grow and gain experience," the report said. "While our military presence may become less visible, it will remain lethal and decisive, able to confront the enemy wherever it may organize."
Along with the report, Bush is making a personal appeal to shore up wavering support for the war in remarks at 9:50 a.m. ET on Wednesday at the U.S. Naval Academy. It's the first in a series of speeches Bush is delivering between now and the Dec. 15 election in Iraq to outline political, security and economic strategies for Iraq.
In the first one, Bush will focus on the training of Iraqi security forces, explaining setbacks U.S. forces have encountered and improvements that have been made, as well as detailing areas now under Iraqi control, a senior White House official said, insisting on anonymity because the president's address has not been released.
Bush's emphasis on the readiness of Iraqi security forces comes at a time when continued violence in Iraq and the death of more than 2,000 U.S. troops have contributed to a sharp drop in Bush's popularity.
His wife, Laura, said Wednesday that she "absolutely" would like to see an acceptable resolution there.
"We want our troops to be able to come home as soon as they possibly can," said Mrs. Bush during an appearance on ABC's "Good Morning America" to give a Christmas tour of the White House.
"It's really remarkable how far they've come," she said, "but I really feel very, very encouraged that we're going to see a very great ending when we see a really free Iraq right in the heart of the Middle East."
Sixty-two percent of Americans, in an AP-Ipsos poll taken in November, said they disapproved of Bush's Iraq policy. Thirty-seven percent approved of his policy — down from 43 percent in May. The president's overall job approval rating is at 37 percent, the lowest level of his presidency.
Sen. Russ Feingold (news, bio, voting record), D-Wis., said Tuesday that the president should have proposed a plan months ago that includes a flexible timetable, tied to clear benchmarks, for concluding the U.S. military mission in Iraq.
"The American people deserve a clear plan for concluding our military mission," said Feingold, who is weighing a bid for the 2008 presidential nomination. "And the Iraqi people need to know without any doubt that we do not intend to stay in that country indefinitely."
The White House report says victory in Iraq will take time.
"It is not realistic to expect a fully functioning democracy, able to defeat its enemies and peacefully reconcile generational grievances, to be in place less than three years after Saddam (Hussein) was finally removed from power," the report said.
Bush said Tuesday that he would decide on troop withdrawals based on the capacity of the Iraqis to take the fight to the enemy and recommendations from commanders on the ground.
There are about 160,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. The Pentagon has not committed to any specific drawdown of U.S. forces next year beyond the announced plan to pull back 28,000 troops that were added this fall for extra security during the election.
In the report, the Bush administration says it is working along a political track to help the Iraqis isolate enemies from those who want to participate in the democratic political process. The "enemy" is a combination of Iraqis who reject democratic reforms, Saddam loyalists and terrorists and others inspired by al-Qaeda.
To maintain security, the report says the U.S. has helped train more than 212,000 Iraqi forces — up from 96,000 in September 2004. There are now more than 120 army and police battalions in the fight — up from five in August 2004. Of these battalions, more than 80 are fighting side-by-side with coalition forces and more than 40 others are taking the lead in the fight.
The document says, however, that multiple challenges remain. Any support that countries, such as Syria or Iran, are giving to terrorists or insurgents must be neutralized. The Iraqi government must make sure its ministries can sustain a national army. And Iraqi security forces must not be infiltrated by those not aligned with the new Iraqi government.
There is concern that some Iraqi forces are operating as militias that are loyal to Shiites and target Sunnis, who now are a political minority after having ruled the country under Saddam Hussein. Heated battles between Iraqi security forces — made up mostly of Shiites — and insurgents — comprising mostly Sunnis — could widen the cultural divide in the nation and provoke civil war.
Democratic Sen. Jack Reed (news, bio, voting record), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee who visited Iraq last month, said he thinks Iraqi security forces have made progress toward readiness. But he adds: "If you've got competent units but they're basically militias in national uniforms, and you're uncertain of whose orders they're taking, that's not the security force you want."