President Bush said Thursday that increased stability in Iraq would allow the withdrawal of more U.S. forces there, reflecting an emerging consensus at the White House and the Pentagon, though a cautious one, that the war has turned a corner.
Bush's remarks, made in an unusual early morning statement outside the Oval Office, came as the month ended with the fewest number of deaths of U.S. troops – 13 – since the war began in 2003, according to a group that tracks American casualties.
Bush and his aides have been reluctant to declare the sharp drop in ethnic and sectarian violence over the past year as irreversible.
Still, he gave the clearest indication yet that current conditions in Iraq would allow him to begin reducing the number of troops there before he leaves office.
There are now roughly 140,000 U.S. troops there, as many as two years ago, when the conflict peaked. But Bush said that the turnaround in Iraq would allow “further reductions in our combat forces, as conditions permit.”
He also said that the U.S. is “making progress” negotiating an agreement with Iraq's government setting the terms for the presence of American forces after a U.N. mandate expires at the end of the year.
An informal deadline for reaching an agreement expired Thursday. Officials said negotiations continued and predicted there would be a final deal, though it could take several more days or weeks.
The administration propelled those negotiations after Bush agreed to a “general time horizon” that many Iraqis like to view as a timetable for withdrawing American and other foreign troops and turning over security to Iraqi forces.
Bush used his statement to highlight what he described as the success of his decision last year to deploy a “surge” of 30,000 troops.
He noted that violence had reached the lowest levels since the spring of 2004 and had remained at low levels for three consecutive months, even as the last of the additional forces left Iraq.
American deaths have paralleled the ebb. The previous monthly low came in May, when 19 soldiers died, according to icasualties.org, which tracks the figures. Deaths among Iraq's civilians and security forces, fell to 865 in July, from 975 in June, according to the Ministry of Interior.
Bush said that Ambassador Ryan Crocker and the American commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, were confident enough now to speak of “a degree of durability” to the gains.
Bush also highlighted his decision, first announced in April, to reduce tours in Iraq to 12 months, from the current 15 months. The longer tours, imposed last year with the “surge,” badly strained forces and were widely unpopular in the Army.
The issue of U.S. forces has been a contentious one in American politics, and the reductions Bush foreshadowed could be announced in the thick of the presidential campaign. Sen. Barack Obama, the Democratic candidate, has called for a withdrawal of all combat forces within a timetable of 16 months, a position the Republican contender, Sen. John McCain, has ridiculed as defeatist.