Majority Democrats in Congress are unable to muster enough votes to force an end to the war. So they are hoping to win Republican support with legislation to limit the mission of US forces to training Iraq's military and police, protecting US assets and fighting terrorists.
Addressing America's frustration with the 4 1/2-year-old-war, the president said, "Some say the gains we are making in Iraq come too late. They are mistaken. It is never too late to deal a blow to al-Qaida. It is never too late to advance freedom. And it is never too late to support our troops in a fight they can win."
"Whatever political party you belong to, whatever your position on Iraq, we should be able to agree that America has a vital interest in preventing chaos and providing hope in the Middle East," the president said.
He added, "Let us come together on a policy of strength in the Middle East."
Bush acknowledged that Iraq's government has failed to meet goals for political reconciliation and security. A new assessment to be released Friday by the White House will underscore that point.
The latest conclusions mirror those in the most recent report, from July, the White House said. The first report said the Iraqi government was achieving spotty progress, with satisfactory gains toward eight benchmarks, unsatisfactory marks on eight more and mixed results on the rest.
"Yet Iraq's national leaders are getting some things done," Bush contended. He said the Baghdad government has passed a budget and is sharing oil revenues among the provinces even though legislation has not been approved. Changes that have begun to take hold in the provinces must be followed in Baghdad, he said.
Bush's claims of security progress were jarred by the assassination of a Sunni sheik who revolted against al-Qaida and fought alongside Americans.
Abdul-Sattar Abu Risha, the most prominent figure in a US-backed revolt of Sunni sheiks against al-Qaida in Iraq, was killed Thursday by a bomb, dramatizing the danger faced by people who cooperate with coalition forces.
Bush's speech was the latest turning point in a 4 1/2-year-old war marred by miscalculations, surprises and setbacks.
Almost since the fall of Baghdad in April 2003, US commanders and administration officials in Washington mistakenly believed they were on track to winding down US involvement and handing off to the Iraqis. Instead, the insurgency intervened and the reality of a country in chaos conspired to deepen the US commitment.
People in the United States overwhelmingly disapprove of Bush's handling of the war, which has claimed the lives of more than 3,700 US troops and cost about a half trillion dollars. His approval rating - both for his handling of Iraq and for his overall performance - stood at 33 percent in an Associated Press-Ipsos poll released Thursday.
About 168,000 US troops are in Iraq now. Bush's order is expected to bring that number to around 132,000 - about where it was when Bush announced a major buildup last Jan. 10.
The reductions announced Thursday represented only a slight hastening of the originally scheduled end of the troop increase announced in January.
Planned troop rotations already call for the first of the additional troops to return, starting next spring, with all to be home by the end of next summer. That could change only if Bush and his advisers made unpopular decisions to extend tour lengths or shorten home leave for replacements.