WASHINGTON -- US President Bush plans to keep the number of US troops in Iraq near the current level through the end of the year and will pull home about 8,000 US troops by February, when the next president will be in charge of wartime decision-making.
If security in Iraq keeps improving, Bush says, "additional reductions will be possible in the first half of 2009."
The president's decisions amount to perhaps his last major troop strategy in a war that has come to define his presidency.
US President George W. Bush while speaking about volunteerism on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington September 8, 2008. [Agencies]
He was to announce the details in a speech Tuesday, the text of which was released in advance by the White House.
One Marine battalion, numbering about 1,000 troops, will go home on schedule in November and not be replaced. An Army brigade of between 3,500 and 4,000 troops will leave in February. Accompanying that combat drawdown will be the withdrawal of about 3,400 support forces.
The measured reduction -- slower in scope and pace than many Democrats in Congress would like -- gives the military some flexibility to shift forces into Afghanistan.
"Here is the bottom line: While the enemy in Iraq is still dangerous, we have seized the offensive, and Iraqi forces are becomingly increasingly capable of leading and winning the fight," Bush said in remarks prepared for delivery to the National Defense University in Washington.
There are about 146,000 US troops in Iraq.
Bush argued that Iraq is in a better place now by almost any measure. He said violence is at its lowest point since the spring of 2004, "normal life is returning to communities across the country," and political reconciliation is moving forward.
The president said security gains remain fragile, but have taken on some degree of durability.
But all this emphasis on progress and improvement belied the fact that his announcement is likely to be a disappointment to many who wanted -- and even expected -- bigger drawdowns sooner.
Nowhere did Bush acknowledge this, instead highlighting his announcement as one of "additional force reductions."
The Iraq war has drained the country's spirit during Bush's second term, and the future course of the conflict is a major point of division between the men who want to replace Bush, Republican Sen. John McCain and Democratic Sen. Barack Obama.
More than half of Bush's address is devoted to Afghanistan.
He outlined what he called a "quiet surge" of additional American forces there, bringing the US presence to nearly 31,000, compared with about 146,000 in Iraq.
"For all the good work we have done in that country, it is clear we must do even more," the president said.
He announced that a Marine battalion that had been scheduled to go to Iraq in November would go to Afghanistan instead, and that that would be followed by one Army combat brigade.
Commanders repeatedly have asked for more troops in Afghanistan, where there has been a resurgence of the Taliban and a growth in violence. The president acknowledged that the challenges in Afghanistan remain huge.
"Unlike Iraq, it has few natural resources and has an underdeveloped infrastructure. Its democratic institutions are fragile," Bush said. "And its enemies are some of the most hardened terrorists and extremists in the world. With their brutal attacks, the Taliban and the terrorists have made some progress in shaking the confidence of the Afghan people."
Bush did not specifically mention, nor apologize for, a controversial US raid in western Afghanistan. But he said he has ensured Afghan President Hamid Karzai that "America will work closely with the Afghan government to ensure the security of the Afghan people while protecting innocent life."
An Afghan government commission and a UN report both say some 90 civilians -- including 60 children and 15 women -- were killed in the US-led raid last month. A US military investigation found a smaller number, seven civilians, were killed in Azizabad, along with up to 35 militants.
The US said Sunday it would reopen the investigation because of emerging new evidence.
"Regrettably, there will be times when our pursuit of the enemy will result in accidental civilian deaths," Bush said.
The president also did not specifically mention Washington's more aggressive moves of late in Pakistan -- portraying the US intentions as only to "help the government of Pakistan defeat Taliban and al-Qaida fighters hiding in remote border regions."
US officials are pressing Pakistan to crack down on places from which insurgents stage attacks on American and NATO forces in neighboring Afghanistan. But they appear to be losing patience.
A highly unusual US-led ground assault last week in the South Waziristan region of Pakistan was said to have killed about 15 people and prompted loud protests from Islamabad -- even threats of a military response to any repeat -- but no public regrets from Washington. At least three other suspected US missile attacks in the tribal belt have been reported in the past 10 days, including on Monday.
Pulling together Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, Bush said: "In all three places, America is standing with brave elected leaders, determined reformers, and millions of ordinary citizens who seek a future of liberty, justice and tolerance."
According to senior defense officials, Gen. David Petraeus, the top US commander in Iraq, had argued to keep troop levels fairly level through next June -- an even longer timeframe than Bush is embracing.
But others -- including Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and other members of the Joint Chiefs -- said they believed that withdrawing troops more quickly from Iraq represented a small risk compared to the potential gain that could be made by shifting more to Afghanistan.
After much discussion, the military leaders agreed on the compromise plan that ultimately went to Bush.