President Bush says there will be more violence in Iraq in 2006, but he also expects to see considerable political progress and a reduction of U.S. forces.
President Bush says the new year brings new challenges for Iraq as politicians try to form a new government and security forces continue to battle insurgents.
"We will see more tough fighting and we will see more sacrifice in 2006 because the enemies of freedom in Iraq continue to sew violence and destruction," he said. "We will also see more progress toward victory. Victory will come when the terrorists and Saddamists can no longer threaten Iraq's democracy."
The president says December parliamentary elections show progress toward that democracy, but he cautioned Americans to be patient. He said they should not be surprised if Iraqis make mistakes and face setbacks in efforts to build a government because the Iraqi people are still overcoming the legacy of three decades of dictatorship.
Despite those obstacles, Mr. Bush says Iraqis have shown they can come together. Minority Sunnis are thought to make up the bulk of the continuing insurgency, but Sunni turnout in the last election was up, giving them what Mr. Bush says will be more influence in the next government.
"It is important that Sunnis who abandoned violence to join the political process now see the benefits of peaceful participation," added Mr. Bush. "Sunnis need to learn how to use their influence constructively in a democratic system to benefit their community and the country at large. And Shi'ia and Kurds need to understand that successful free societies protect the rights of the minorities against the tyranny of the majority."
Mr. Bush says a country that divides into factions and dwells on old grievances risks sliding back into tyranny. He told a meeting of American military veterans that compromise, consensus, and power sharing are the only path to national unity and lasting democracy.
The president says U.S. troop levels in Iraq will fall below the pre-election baseline of 138,000. Later this year, if Iraqi security forces continue to make progress, he says there may be further possible adjustments to troop strength. But the president made clear that this would be based on military assessments and not what he calls an artificial timetable set by Washington politicians.
Opposition Democrats are calling for the president to set clearer benchmarks for when more U.S. troops might come home.
President Bush says carrying on this war will face an added challenge in the months ahead as campaigning begins for U.S. Congressional elections in November. There is a vigorous debate about the war and Mr. Bush says American voters can tell the difference between those who are being responsible in that debate and those who are not.
"They know the difference between honest critics who question the way the war is being prosecuted and partisan critics who claim that we acted in Iraq because of oil, or because of Israel, or because we misled the American people," he explained. "And they know the difference between a loyal opposition that points out what is wrong and defeatists who refuse to see that anything is right."
When soldiers hear politicians in Washington questioning their mission, President Bush says, that hurts morale. He says America will remain engaged in Iraq and will settle for nothing less than what he calls complete victory.