President Bush says Iraqi security forces are increasingly taking the lead in the fight against insurgents. But he says a hasty U.S. pull-out would be a big mistake and rejects the notion of a timetable for withdrawal.
The president is clearly on the defensive, seeking to lay out his strategy for victory in Iraq at a time of growing public doubts.
He says progress is being made in the training of Iraqi troops, emphasizing they are taking on more and more responsibility: "Our goal is to train enough Iraqi forces so they can carry the fight - and this will take time and patience. And it's worth the
time, and it's worth the effort because Iraqis and Americans share a common enemy, and when that enemy is defeated in Iraq, Americans will be safer here at home."
In a speech to a receptive audience at the U.S. Naval Academy near Washington, the president said Iraqi forces have made great gains over the last year. He said as Iraqis are trained and prove their combat readiness, the American military presence will change: "As Iraqi forces take responsibility for more of their own territory, coalition forces can concentrate on training Iraqis and hunting down high-value targets, like the terrorist Zarqawi and his associates."
But the president once again rejected the notion of a set timetable for an American withdrawal, saying victory in the overall war on terrorism remains paramount. He said political considerations will not drive his decisions, and vowed to abide by the recommendations of his commanders in the field.
In Iraq, the commander of coalition forces told reporters there is no timeline for bringing American troops home. General George Casey stressed force levels are directly linked to conditions on the ground: "There is not a timeline. It is all conditions-based. And we do monthly assessments with Iraqi leaders and coalition counterparts. They access the readiness of Iraqi units, military and police and they make judgments based on those assessments. And the progress of the Iraqi security forces has been steady over the last months."
But his words, and those of the president, did not ease the skepticism on Capitol Hill.
Shortly after Mr. Bush finished his address, a group of prominent Senators from the Democratic Party held a news conference where they criticized his remarks. Massachusetts Senator John Kerry - the Democrat's 2004 presidential nominee said Mr. Bush did not talk about what is really happening in Iraq: "What the president did not acknowledge today at all is that the presence of our troops itself is a part of the current reality on the ground that presents food for the insurgents. And you need to reduce that presence over a period of time in order to be able to succeed, not fail."
Iraq has become the overriding issue in Washington, with debate on the war drowning out consideration of the president's domestic agenda.
The rhetoric grew hotter recently when Democratic Congressman John Murtha - a former Marine and one of the military's strongest boosters in the House of Representatives - called for a complete U.S. withdrawal from Iraq.
The White House has responded with a series of presidential appearances in military settings - all designed to make the case for war at a time of mounting casualties. It has also released a 35-page pamphlet titled National Strategy for Victory in Iraq.
White House officials say the booklet is designed to give the American people a better understanding of the administration's plans and goals for Iraq. And in his speech at the Naval Academy, the president made the point of saying it is now available for all to read on the White House website.