President George W. Bush on Thursday ordered gradual troop reductions in Iraq but defied calls for a dramatic change of course, telling skeptical Americans the U.S. military role there will stretch beyond his presidency.
Trying to secure more time to allow his strategy to work, Bush -- in a televised prime-time address -- embraced recommendations by his top commander in Iraq for a limited withdrawal of about 20,000 troops by July.
But Bush also made clear his view that the United States would require a major involvement in Iraq for years to come and said the Baghdad government needed "an enduring relationship with America."
That assessment will make Bush's speech a tough sell for anti-war Democrats in control of Congress and for the large majority of Americans opposed to his Iraq policy.
"Because of the measure of success we are seeing in Iraq, we can begin seeing troops come home," Bush said say after Gen. David Petraeus delivered two
days of congressional testimony that underscored deep partisan divisions over the war.
The White House had planned Bush's Oval Office speech as the centerpiece of a public relations blitz aimed at blunting critics' demands for a faster, wider withdrawal.
The partial drawdown will roll back troop strength from the current 169,000 to around the same levels the United States had in Iraq before the president ordered a buildup in January.
That has prompted Bush's Democratic critics to accuse the administration of trying to fool the American people into thinking he has responded to growing anti-war sentiment when he is actually making no fundamental change in approach.
Even before Bush spoke, Democratic House speaker Nancy Pelosi said he was announcing "a stay-the-course strategy that puts us on a path for 10 years of war in Iraq."
Bush said he had accepted Petraeus's proposal for the removal by mid-2008 of five of 20 U.S. military brigades now in Iraq, and that the pace of reductions would hinge on the level of success on the ground.
"This vision for a reduced American presence also has the support of Iraqi leaders from all communities," Bush said.
Bush also said it was in the best interest of Iraq's neighbors to strengthen the government in Baghdad. "And it means the efforts by Iran and Syria to undermine that government must end," he said, reiterating allegations against Tehran and Damascus that both countries have denied.