Bush defends Iraq troop plan, slams Democrats

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WASHINGTON, Sep 20 (Reuters) President George W Bush today defended his plan for limited US troop cuts in Iraq and denounced Democrats for not taking a stronger stand against an anti-war group's attack on the credibility of his top Iraq commander.

Bush was speaking at his first news conference since delivering a televised address backing General David Petraeus' proposal to withdraw about 20,000 troops by July. But as in his speech last Thursday, he defied calls for a dramatic change of course in Iraq.

''Progress will yield fewer troops (in Iraq),'' Bush said.

''In other words, return on success is what I said.'' As he continued fending off pressure for a US exit from the unpopular war, Bush took aim at his Democratic critics over a newspaper ad that excoriated Petraeus over his closely watched testimony before Congress last week.

The liberal anti-war group MoveOn.org drew widespread criticism from Republicans for its ad in The New York Times that mocked Petraeus as ''General Betray Us'' for stating that a troop build-up in Iraq was making progress.

''I thought the ad was disgusting,'' said Bush, who has relied on the general's aura of credibility in Congress to help sell his strategy. ''I felt like the ad was an attack not only on General Petraeus but on the US military, and I was disappointed that not more leaders in the Democrat party spoke out strongly against that ad.'' ''And that leads me to come to this conclusion: that most Democrats are afraid of irritating a left-wing group like MoveOn.org, or more afraid of irritating them, then they are of irritating the United States military,'' Bush added. ''That was a sorry deal.'' Responding to Bush's criticism, MoveOn.org's executive director, said: ''What's disgusting is that the president has more interest in political attacks than developing an exit strategy to get our troops out of Iraq.'' The US Senate later voted 72-25 to repudiate the ad.

Twenty-two Democrats joined 49 Republicans and one independent in denouncing it.

DEMOCRATIC EFFORTS STALLED FOR NOW Efforts by Democrats to force change in Bush's Iraq policy appeared stalled for now after his fellow Republicans blocked a Senate bill that would have granted troops more leave time between deployments in Iraq. It had been seen as the Democrats' best near-term chance of gaining leverage over war strategy.

Bush acknowledged that the Iraqi government had to do more to help bridge the sectarian divide, but he said progress was being made at the local level.

''Part of the reason why there's not this instant democracy in Iraq is because people are still recovering from Saddam Hussein's brutal rule,'' he said. ''I heard somebody say, Where's Mandela?' Well, Mandela's dead because Saddam Hussein killed all the Mandelas.'' Bush was referring to the former South African leader who helped reconcile his country after decades of racial apartheid.

Mandela has receded from active politics but is still alive.

Bush voiced continued confidence in Robert Gates' support for his war strategy after the US defense secretary told a New York Times columnist, when asked if the 2003 invasion of Iraq was worth doing: ''If I'd known then what I know now, would I have done the same? I think the answer is, 'I don't know.''' Bush conceded the Iraqi security forces' achievement of goals for taking over responsibility has been ''slower than we thought.'' But he insisted the goal remained unchanged.

In his speech, Bush said security improvements had made it possible to start drawing down US forces. But that will only roll back troop strength, currently at 169,000, to around the same levels before Bush ordered a major buildup in January.

Democratic leaders have said that Bush is trying to obscure the fact that most of the troops being withdrawn would have left anyway under current deployment timetables.

REUTERS GT BST0025

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