Bush to outline new Iraq course

He's said to be casting wide net for advice in military, Congress

December 04, 2006|By Josh Meyer | Josh Meyer,Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON -- President Bush has been actively soliciting ideas and proposals about a course correction in Iraq from an array of senior aides, congressional and military leaders, Iraqi officials and others, and he plans to announce a "new way forward" soon, senior administration officials said yesterday.

National Security Adviser Stephen J. Hadley and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad sought to portray Bush's actions as a bold leadership step, not a reaction to calls for a change in strategy by the Iraq Study Group, congressional Democrats and even his outgoing defense secretary, Donald H. Rumsfeld.

They said an internal Rumsfeld memo proposing major changes in Iraq policy that surfaced publicly Saturday was a part of that initiative, not an admission of failure or a reflection of dissension.

"The president had asked agencies to begin a review of our policy in Iraq, and what Secretary Rumsfeld did, I think, very helpfully, was put together a sort of laundry list of ideas that ought to be considered," Hadley told ABC's This Week.

On CBS' Face The Nation, Hadley said there was no timetable for the plan, but "I think it's going to be weeks, not months."

Khalilzad told CNN's Late Edition that the efforts by the bipartisan Iraq Study Group - which is expected to release a report Wednesday calling for a gradual troop withdrawal - helped spur the administration into seeking alternatives on what to do next, particularly from top officials such as Rumsfeld.

Bush repeatedly has rejected a wholesale pullout of troops, or what the White House calls artificially imposed deadlines, saying Thursday: "This business about a graceful exit just simply has no realism to it at all."

Yesterday, Hadley and Khalilzad stressed that even as the president considers calls for a drawdown by the study group, Rumsfeld, Democrats in Congress and others, his main goal is to shift responsibility to Iraqi political and military leaders and force them to more quickly assume control of the country.

The White House is preparing for an important week in the contentious debate over Iraq, focusing not only on whether - and when - U.S. troops should be withdrawn but on administration fears that Iraqi officials will not be able to keep their country from plunging deeper into civil war among Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds.

Officials are particularly concerned whether Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his government can stand up to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his armed followers, whom U.S. officials have characterized as "death squads."

Bush is to meet today in Washington with Abdul Aziz Hakim, a Shiite cleric and al-Sadr's main rival, to discuss ways to stanch the bloodshed and strengthen al-Maliki's fractured government.

Hakim, who is linked to a militia blamed for some of the sectarian killing, will press Bush to accelerate the handover of security control to Iraq in exchange for promises to rein in militias accused of using the Shiite-dominated police force as a cover for killing Sunnis, said Sheik Dyauddin Fayadh, a senior member of the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. He also will reassure Bush that Iran will not be allowed to exert undue influence in Iraq, Fayadh said.

Khalilzad said the meeting with Hakim and one planned with Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, a Sunni leader, are designed to give Bush a chance to encourage Iraqis "to come together, to unite, to reconcile and to confront extremists."

The officials' appearances on the Sunday television shows came on the heels of the second of a series of embarrassing leaks concerning the administration's efforts in Iraq, both to The New York Times. The first disclosed a classified memo from Hadley to Bush expressing concerns about al- Maliki's leadership abilities. That came just before a meeting between Bush and the Iraqi leader.

The second came Saturday, when an internal Nov. 6 memo from Rumsfeld to Bush surfaced in which the defense secretary acknowledged that the current strategy in Iraq "is not working well enough or fast enough."

Rumsfeld, who resigned two days after writing the memo, called for a "major adjustment" in the U.S. strategy. He offered several proposals, most of which called for the administration to be more "minimalist" in its goals in Iraq and its troop presence. Many were similar to ideas pushed by Democrats in Congress for many months.

Noting the similarities, some Democrats condemned Rumsfeld's memo, saying that it was emblematic of an administration that was too inflexible on Iraq until after the GOP's electoral defeat that cost it control of Congress.

Josh Meyer writes for the Los Angeles Times. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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