President Bush on Tuesday ordered 8,000 more combat and support troops out of Iraq by February 2009.
The drawdown will leave nearly the same level of U.S. forces in the war zone for the remainder of the year, although one Marine battalion, numbering about 1,000 troops, will go home on schedule in November and not be replaced.
"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 to the National Defense University in Washington.
In all, about 8,000 U.S. forces will be coming back, the President said.
Still, the number of troops being withdrawn is a smaller number than expected, reflecting the desire of the President and military leaders to avoid jeopardizing the security gains made in Iraq thus far.
"Last week, a remarkable event took place in Iraq," the President said. "At a ceremony in the city of Ramadi, responsibility for security in Anbar province was transferred to Iraqi civilian authorities. Iraqi forces are now leading security operations across Anbar with American troops in an over-watch roll.
"With this transfer of responsibility, the people of Anbar took control of their own security and their own destiny," Bush added.
There are now roughly 146,000 U.S. troops in Iraq and Bush hinted that more troops could return home in the first half of 2009 if conditions improve.
Bush also announced a decision to increase American force levels in Afghanistan by about 4,500 troops.
"The President's decision paves the way for us to get even more troops out of Iraq this year and into Afghanistan," said Geoff Morrell, the Pentagon press secretary. "So the progress our forces are making in Iraq continues to pay big dividends for the commanders in Afghanistan."
Senior defense officials say Bush is adopting a compromise from his military team.
Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, had argued to keep troop levels fairly level through next June, an even longer time frame.
But others, including Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said they believed that withdrawing troops more quickly from Iraq represented a small risk compared to the gain that could be made by shifting more to Afghanistan.
Bush was planning a low-key trip to Walter Reed Army Medical Center Tuesday afternoon to visit wounded troops.
Source: The Associated Press, The New York Times