US President George W. Bush signaled yesterday his unwillingness to consider early US troop reductions in Iraq, saying new offensive operations there were just in their "early stages."
The statement, made in his weekly radio address, followed a fervent plea by John Warner, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, who publicly asked the president to initiate by Sept. 15 at least a symbolic drawdown of US military forces from Iraq.
Warner, a former secretary of the Navy and a widely respected authority on military affairs, suggested on Thursday the president bring home up to 5,000 US troops as "the first step in a withdrawal of armed forces" in order to "send a sharp and clear message" to the Iraqi government that the US commitment was not open-ended.
The president has not formally responded to the appeal. But in his address, he expressed satisfaction with offensive operations launched in the wake of a nearly 30,000-troop surge he announced at the beginning of the year -- and said they were just beginning.
"We are still in the early stages of our new operations," the president said. "But the success of the past couple of months have shown that conditions on the ground can change -- and they are changing."
He argued that every month since January, US forces have killed or captured on average more than 1,500 al-Qaeda fighters and other insurgents in Iraq.
Young Iraqi men are signing up for the army, Bush went on to say, police are patrolling the streets, and neighborhood watch groups are being formed in Iraqi cities.
Bush said Iraqis were now volunteering vital information about insurgents and other extremists hiding in their midst more frequently, which had led to a "marked reduction" in sectarian murders.
"We cannot expect the new strategy we are carrying out to bring success overnight," the president concluded. "But by standing with the Iraqi people as they build their democracy, we will deliver a devastating blow to al-Qaeda, we will help provide new hope for millions of people throughout the Middle East, we will gain a friend and ally in the war on terror, and we will make the American people safer."
The address was part of a broad public relations offensive launched by the White House ahead of a crucial report to Congress by the top US military commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, and US Ambassador Ryan Crocker in the middle of next month.
Analysts said that Warner's call to begin a troop withdrawal was a wake-up call for Bush as he fights to keep his policy from unraveling, but it may not immediately sway votes in Congress for a pullout.
"The main thing he's [Warner's] trying to do is send a signal to the administration that they've got to begin taking some actions that show ... we're not just going to stay there [in Iraq] indefinitely," Brookings Institution congressional analyst Thomas Mann said.
The statement added to the pressure for change in Bush's Iraq policy, which is growing on many fronts.
"It's going to further isolate the president," said Iraq analyst Frederick Barton of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.