| An Iraqi soldier speaks with a young boy during a patrol in Baghdad. (AFP)
Annapolis (Maryland), Nov. 30 (Reuters): President George W. Bush asked for patience from Americans weary of the rising US death toll in Iraq today and said a reduction in American troops may be possible but rejected a pullout timetable.
In a new White House push to counter critics of the war effort ahead of Iraq’s December 15 election, Bush said progress in training Iraqi forces would allow a diminished American role.
“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,” Bush said in a speech to the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.
Bush, whose popularity rating is at the lowest of his presidency, is struggling to rebuild confidence in his strategy among Americans fed up with the death toll and daily television images of bombings in Baghdad.
More than 2,100 US troops have died and nearly 16,000 have been wounded since the March 2003 US-led invasion.
Democrats said the speech was more of the same rhetoric. “The President’s effort to put lipstick on his failed Iraq strategy fools no one. It’s still a plan for a continued open-ended commitment, which puts at risk our troops on the ground and our citizens at home,” said Massachusetts Democratic Senator Edward Kennedy.
Senate minority leader Harry Reid of Nevada said Bush “recycled his tired rhetoric of ‘stay the course’ and once again missed an opportunity to lay out a real strategy for success in Iraq that will bring our troops safely home.”
Bush again insisted there would be no timetable for a pullout, a demand bolstered earlier this month when a decorated veteran and hawkish member of the US Congress, Pennsylvania Democratic Representative John Murtha, demanded an immediate withdrawal.
“To all who wear the uniform, I make you this pledge: America will not run in the face of car bombers and assassins so long as I am your commander in chief,” Bush said.
A pullout deadline would send a message across the world that “America is weak” and embolden its enemies, he said.
Bush expressed hope for a lesser American role in Iraq that would presumably take troops more out of harm’s way. US troops will increasingly move out of cities, reduce the number of their bases and conduct fewer patrols and convoys, he said.
“As Iraqi forces gain experience and the political process advances, we will be able to decrease our troop levels in Iraq without losing our capability to defeat the terrorists,” he said.
Showing some impatience among Republicans with the progress of the war, the Republican-led US Senate two weeks ago called for Iraqis to start taking the lead in their own security next year to allow a phased withdrawal of US troops.
Defence officials said last week that the Pentagon plans to shrink the American presence ' now at 155,000 ' to about 138,000 after the Iraqi election and is considering dropping to about 100,000 around mid-2006 if conditions allow.
Bush acknowledged setbacks in training efforts and that the Iraqis’ performance has been uneven in some areas.
But he said the influence of Iraqi security forces was growing, with more than 120 army and police combat battalions in the fight, either alongside coalition forces or “conducting their own operations against the terrorists with some coalition support.”