American troops must stay in the battle, Bush said, and more than 130,000 will remain after the newly ordered withdrawals are completed in July.
“The principle guiding my decisions on troop levels in Iraq is: return on success,” the president said.
“The more successful we are, the more American troops can return home.”
‘Success’ in Anbar
The president touted Anbar province as evidence of the success of the US troop “surge”.
But his speech came just hours after Sattar Abu Risha, a key Sunni tribal leader who worked with the US against al-Qaeda in al-Anbar, was killed by a roadside bomb.
Still, Bush firmly rejected calls to end the war, saying the fighters who threaten Iraq’s future are also a danger to US national security.
He described the withdrawals, and the US forces still fighting in Iraq, as a compromise on which war supporters and opponents could agree.
“The way forward I have described tonight makes it possible, for the first time in years, for people who have been on opposite sides of this difficult debate to come together,” Bush said.
“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.
Al Jazeera’s Kimberly Halkett in Washington reported that reaction to Bush’s speech had not been very positive,.
Ordinary Americans, military families as well as Democrats said that the president’s speech did not convey any dramatic changes in the mission in Iraq.
“Had the US foreign policy makers read history, they would not get involved in any war after Vietnam”
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“They say this all just smoke, mirrors and window dressing that the president is really just trying to run out the clock and hand this into the lap of his successor,” Halkett said.
Democrats have said they will launch a new attempt in the senate next week to change the role of US forces in Iraq through legislation tied to a defence spending bill.
Republicans have also privately criticised Bush’s speech, saying the lack of a change of strategy only makes it more difficult for them to deliver to their constituency as they start campaigning in their districts.
All this is expected to dominate the race for presidency in coming months.
Meanwhile in the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, Wamid Omar Nazmi, a political scientist, told Al Jazeera that Iraqis were also sceptical.
“The Iraqis are wondering if president Bush is just buying time,” Nazmi said.
He said that most of the population is against the presence of foreign troops on their land, “more especially when they have worsened the situation than before.”
Bush also said on Thursday that the US engagement in Iraq would stretch beyond his presidency, requiring military, financial and political support from Washington.
He said Iraqi leaders “have asked for an enduring relationship with America. And we are ready to begin building that relationship in a way that protects our interests in the region and requires many fewer American troops”.
Bush also acknowledged that Iraq’s government had failed to meet goals for political reconciliation and security.
“In my meetings with Iraqi leaders,” he said, “I have made it clear that they must.”
A White House report, to be released Friday, will document the continued failures of the Iraqi government.