Bush begins talks on Iraq strategy

Meetings a prelude to a shift in policy

December 12, 2006|By James Gerstenzang | James Gerstenzang,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- Launching a highly visible round of consultations as he seeks to reshape the U.S. role in Iraq, President Bush reiterated yesterday that success there was crucial to the long-term protection of the United States and said Iraq's regional neighbors have a responsibility to help the country's fledgling government.

Bush met with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and State Department officials and then with three retired Army generals and two outside policy experts, opening a week of conferences before announcing a new direction in Iraq in the new year. In the aftermath of last week's sharply critical report by the Iraq Study Group, the White House is eager to draw the spotlight to other ideas and options more in keeping with Bush's goals.

Bush continues his policy review today and tomorrow, with meetings and teleconferences with U.S. military commanders and Iraqi officials, including Iraqi Vice President Tariq Hashimi, the head of the largest party representing Iraq's Sunni Arab minority, and a briefing at the Pentagon on military options.

The in-depth review follows the report by the Iraq Study Group, a commission originally blessed by the White House. The panel concluded that conditions in Iraq were "grave and deteriorating," and recommended action to hand over more responsibilities to the Iraqis and withdraw most U.S. combat forces by 2008.

Bush voiced antipathy last week toward the key study group recommendations, which included beginning talks with Iran and Syria and leaning on the Iraqi government to settle political squabbles. He then announced this week's battery of meetings as part of "extensive consultations" with experts inside and outside the government.

Speaking with reporters at the State Department after the meetings there, Bush said that he and the advisers talked about "the neighborhood - the countries that surround Iraq and the responsibilities that they have." That group includes not only Kuwait, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, but also Iran and Syria.

At lower levels, officials at the State Department are divided over whether talks with Iran and Syria could significantly help stabilize Iraq, as the study group argued. But at the top level, Rice and her closest aides are vigorously skeptical about the idea.

On Friday, Rice told reporters who asked about her response to the study group report: "In both Syria and Iran, you have states that have chosen to be on the side of the divide that is fueling extremism, not moderation. And that is the essential problem."

The study group, led by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, a Republican, and former Indiana Rep. Lee H. Hamilton, a Democrat, recommended that the administration look for ways to talk to Iran and Syria; Bush has opposed such a course.

Bush is aiming to outline a "way forward" in Iraq in a national address, possibly before Christmas, White House officials have said, although they have also said the date could slip.

The president said the goal of this week's consultations was to assure the American people "that I've listened to all aspects of government," as he seeks to determine a route that will "achieve our objective: to succeed in Iraq."

White House press secretary Tony Snow said that Bush and the State Department officials did not specifically discuss the recommendations of the Baker-Hamilton commission and that the meetings the president is conducting this week were not "a reaction to Baker-Hamilton."

He also said the president, in describing Iraq as "a central component of defeating the extremists" - not as "the central front" of the terror war - was not shifting his view, but rather varying "the phraseology."

During the afternoon, Bush met privately with five experts on Iraq and the military: Stephen Biddle, a former professor at the U.S. Army War College and fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations; Eliot A. Cohen, an expert on military strategy at the School for Advanced International Studies in Washington, and three retired Army generals: Wayne Downing, Jack Keane and Barry R. McCaffrey.

Most of those summoned to the White House have criticized the Iraq Study Group's central recommendation to boost the number of advisers and draw down the number of combat brigades, contending that the plan could endanger U.S. troops.

James Gerstenzang writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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