Bush set to endorse limited troop cuts in Iraq

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WASHINGTON, Sep 13 (Reuters) President George W Bush today is expected to endorse plans for limited cuts in US troop levels in Iraq but will offer little else to skeptical Americans looking for a change of course in the unpopular war.

Trying to rally public support in the face of growing Democratic opposition to his Iraq strategy, Bush will deliver a televised address after two days of congressional testimony by his top military and diplomatic officials in Baghdad.

The president is all but certain to embrace Gen David Petraeus' recommendation to gradually withdraw 30,000 troops by next summer, bringing US force strength in Iraq back to what it was before he ordered a buildup in January.

The proposed drawdown would not be as fast or as large as Democrats have demanded, but it could buy time for Bush to pursue the war by undermining a push for a wider withdrawal.

Bush has touted today's prime-time speech as a chance to ''lay out a vision'' for future US involvement in Iraq four and a half years after the invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.

But the White House has signaled little chance of a major shift in policy, which could make Bush's address a tough sell. Polls generally show Americans 2-to-1 against the war.

An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll released on the eve of Bush's speech found just 30 per cent of Americans approved of his handling of Iraq, but that was an eight-point jump from 22 per cent in July.

Democrats in control of Congress were largely unconvinced by Petraeus' accounts of progress in Iraq, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi accused Bush of effectively signing off on a ten-year ''open-ended'' commitment there. Some of Bush's fellow Republicans have also voiced doubts over his strategy.

White House spokesman Tony Snow said Pelosi was ''flat wrong'' and called the notion that the president's Iraq strategy was static ''an amazing canard.'' ''Only a crazy person would fail to adjust strategy on a regular basis, based on the realities on the ground,'' he said.

POLITICAL SPIN? Democrats insist, however, the White House is putting the best political spin on what Pentagon officials have been saying for months -- that the ''surge'' of forces in Iraq faces a time limit because of the risk of overstretching the US military.

''Taking credit for this troop reduction is like taking credit for the sun coming up in the morning,'' said Sen Hillary Clinton, a leading Democratic presidential contender.

The recommended troop reduction in coming months would still leave 130,000 US troops in Iraq by next summer, and Petraeus said he would have to wait until March before assessing the prospects for any further drawdown.

Petraeus made clear in his testimony, however, that the United States would still need a major troop presence in Iraq for years to come, driving home the likelihood that Bush will be leaving decisions about ending the war to his successor.

Analysts say Petraeus, the top US commander in Iraq, was picked to lay the groundwork for Bush's speech because of the credibility he has among Republicans and Democrats alike.

With his approval ratings near historic lows, Bush is expected to acknowledge American frustration with the war while appealing for more time for his Iraq strategy to work.

While pointing to what he sees as progress on the security front in Iraq, he will insist that any troop reductions will be dependent on continued improvement.

Underscoring the importance the administration places on Bush's address, the White House said it had gone through more than 20 drafts.


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