Bush willing to shift tactics to win in Iraq

Long-term goals, strategy unchanged, president says

October 21, 2006|By Paul Richter and Doyle McManus | Paul Richter and Doyle McManus,Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON -- With American casualties rising and pressure growing from Republican and Democratic leaders for a change of course in Iraq, President Bush said yesterday that he is willing to adjust U.S. tactics in Baghdad but does not intend to change his strategy or his long-term goals there.

"We will stay in Iraq, we will fight in Iraq and we will win in Iraq," Bush told an audience of GOP contributors in Washington. "Our goal hasn't changed, but the tactics are constantly adjusting to an enemy which is brutal and violent."

Bush's remarks appeared to signal that he is not wedded to a "stay the course" doctrine, as critics charge. At the same time, he pledged to secure victory and said he would not change his administration's strategy or overall goals, even if it shifted tactics.

Bush spoke at the end of a week that saw a commander concede that policies aimed at quelling violence in Baghdad had fallen short and on the eve of a White House conference today with generals, Cabinet officials and security advisers.

And yesterday, hundreds of militiamen loyal to radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr took over the city of Amarah, in southern Iraq, for several hours in a revolt that pitted rival Shiite factions against one another, opening a potential new front in the web of violence.

The developments came as an increasing number of Republican loyalists questioned Bush's policies in Iraq and called for new military and political options, and as expectations grew for a post-election change in tactics. By adhering to longer-term goals while allowing for tactical changes, Bush could argue that military shifts do not represent a failure of past policies.

Bush declared that his administration's "unchanging" goal is to enable Iraq to govern, defend and sustain itself. Privately, some administration officials acknowledged yesterday that in the face of Iraq's deepening troubles, they are weighing major changes in course and expect a new direction - though not a withdrawal - to be announced within months.

One senior official said he expected the changes would come after a congressionally chartered panel, the Iraq Study Group, makes its recommendations, giving the administration "political cover" for a shift.

"We're not going to pack up and go home," said the senior administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "But the situation is grim, and may even be worse than it looks in the media" because of frequent near-calamities in Iraq that never get public attention in the United States. "People here are desperate, and there is a lot of deep thinking going on."

Amid the ferment over Iraq, a handful of strategic alternatives are receiving the most attention.

They include setting a timetable for withdrawal; giving a larger role to other countries in the region, notably Syria and Iran, to win their cooperation on security; decentralizing the country, even dividing it into Kurdish, Sunni and Shiite states; or encouraging formation of a new government led by a stronger leader, such as a Iraqi general.

Administration officials and outside experts say all the options have major disadvantages and would entail substantial political costs. U.S. officials say all of them have been rejected at various points by the administration.

But the senior official said some in the government continue to think about options that have been ruled out - such as the more authoritarian approach - in hopes of establishing order as a first step toward rebuilding Iraq. He described this as a "last choice," but added: "At some point, the situation becomes so serious that you need order, period."

Handing Iraq's government over to a strong leader would carry large political costs. It would mean setting aside the administration's goal of establishing American-style governance, at least temporarily. And it would mean finding a "man on horseback" who would have support of all the major Iraqi factions - perhaps an impossible task.

The strongman option was called the "most plausible" of choices by scholar Eliot Cohen of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, who has close ties to military and civilian leaders. Cohen, often described as a leading "neoconservative," wrote in a Wall Street Journal column yesterday that the Iraq war is "if not a failure, failing." He said throwing U.S. support behind a stronger leader would force the administration to swallow "a substantial repast of crow."

The option of "regionalizing" the effort - with the help of Iran and Syria - appears to have the support of former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, the Iraq Study Group co-chairman.

The senior Bush administration official said such an approach would require the United States to set aside other goals on Syria and Iran, including its push to keep Tehran from gaining a nuclear weapon.

Another option, advocated by Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, is the idea of increasing troop levels. But administration officials fear that would further diminish public support, and that there are no extra troops to be had in large numbers.

The Pentagon has begun work on a "Plan B," involving changes in military approach that Bush would consider "tactical" rather than "strategic" shifts.

Paul Richter and Doyle McManus write for the Los Angeles Times.

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