In endorsing the recommendation of General David Petraeus, the US commander in Iraq, Mr Bush pointed to “significant progress” in Iraq. He added that he would give the four-star general who has overseen the military “surge” that will be unwound this summer, time to “consolidate his forces”.
“I’ve told him he’ll have all the time we need,” said Mr Bush.
Mr Bush’s comments suggested that US troop levels would remain close to the post-surge level of 140,000 for the remainder of his presidency. But he also bowed to the concerns of the joint chiefs of staff – the heads of the army, marine corps, navy and air force – by announcing shorter tours in war zones.
To ease the strain on military families, Mr Bush said that soldiers deploying to Iraq and Afghanistan after August would serve only 12 months, compared with the current 15-month tour. They would also be guaranteed at least one year back at home back before being redeployed.
Earlier on Thursday, Gen Petraeus expressed concern that the last year’s ceasefire by Moqtada al-Sadr, the radical Shia cleric who heads the Medhi army, could “fray”.
The US military has pointed to the ceasefire as one of the pillars that have helped sustain the security improvements. But some experts are worried that Nouri al-Maliki, the Iraqi prime minister, is jeopardising that ceasefire by continuing an offensive against elements of the Medhi army.
“There has to be a very, very sensitive approach as this goes forward, to make sure that folks don’t feel like they’re backed into a corner from which there’s no alternative,” said Gen Petraeus.
Mr Bush’s remarks came in a speech at the White House after two days of testimony to Congress by Gen Petraeus, Ryan Crocker, US ambassador to Baghdad, on progress in the war. Mr Bush said a “major strategic shift” had occurred since the “surge” with violence have fallen “dramatically”.
“Fifteen months ago, Americans were worried about the prospect of failure in Iraq. Today, thanks to the surge, we’ve renewed and revived the prospect of success.”
But he acknowledged that “serious and complex challenges remained”, including the continued presence of al-Qaeda, the “destructive influence” of Iran and the “hard compromises” needed for political progress.
In a warning to Tehran, Mr Bush said the Iranian regime had a choice between developing peaceful relations with Iraq or continuing to “arm and train and fund illegal militant groups which are terrorising the Iraqi people and turning them against Iran”.
“If Iran makes the right choice, America will encourage a peaceful relationship between Iran and Iraq,” he said. “If Iran makes the wrong choice, America will act to protect our interests and our troops and our Iraqi partners.”
In pressing his case for the war, Mr Bush said success in Iraq would “bring us closer to our most important goal – making the American people safer here at home”. Earlier this week when John Warner, a respective Republican senator, asked Gen Petraeus whether the campaign in Iraq was in fact making the US safer, he responded: ““ultimately, it can only be assessed by history”.