Bush delays Iraq speech

He plans to wait until January to tell nation about policy overhaul

December 13, 2006|By James Gerstenzang | James Gerstenzang,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- President Bush is delaying until January his planned report to the nation on the direction he and aides are charting for the United States in Iraq, the White House said yesterday, pointing to a need for continuing internal discussions of policy and tactical shifts.

White House press secretary Tony Snow said Bush has "decided, frankly, it's not ready yet," even though most of the internal debates "have kind of been ironed out."

Bush is in the midst of private discussions on how to overhaul the campaign to end the sectarian violence in Iraq. He had planned a national address by the end of next week.

The postponement prompted a complaint from Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, who will become Senate majority leader when Democrats take control of Congress next month.

In the five weeks since congressional elections that were widely viewed as a rebuke to the president's handling of the war, Reid said, Bush has done nothing but remove Donald H. Rumsfeld as secretary of defense "and conduct a listening tour."

"Talking to the same people he should have talked to four years ago does not relieve the president of the need to demonstrate leadership and change his policy now. The ball remains in his court, and time is running out," Reid said, saying the need for change is "important and urgent."

Bush's consultations brought Iraqi Vice President Tariq Hashimi, a member of the Sunni Muslim minority, to the Oval Office yesterday, about a month earlier than planned, to present his views to Bush.

The meeting with Hashimi was the second in a week that Bush has held with senior leaders visiting from Baghdad. The president met last week with Abdelaziz Hakim, the leader of the largest Shiite Muslim faction in the Iraqi parliament.

As violence continues and allegiances shift in Baghdad, U.S. officials are trying to stabilize Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's authority, and key leaders are seeking to form an alliance that could exclude anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr from a role in the ruling coalition.

Speaking during a photo session with Hashimi in the Oval Office after the 25-minute meeting, Bush said he and the Iraqi vice president discussed "what the United States can do to help this Iraqi government succeed."

Hashimi, who has lost three close family members to violence, echoed Bush's assessment that "there is no way but success in Iraq."

"There is a chance, and I can assure you there is a great and real chance, to get out of this present dilemma," Hashimi said. "There is a light in the corridor."

Bush's consultations follow last week's release of the report of the Iraq Study Group, which was highly critical of U.S. policy and said that conditions in Iraq were "grave and deteriorating."

The administration has sought to present the work of the bipartisan commission as one of a number of assessments that Bush will consider as he seeks to chart a new direction.

Snow said the delay in making that course public had nothing to do with letting time pass between the release of the Iraq report and the president's announcement.

"The pivot on which everything turns" is not the study group's report, he said, but "the unfolding realities in Iraq and how you deal with them."

Bush also spoke by videoconference with U.S. military commanders in Iraq. Today, he plans to visit the Pentagon to meet with officials there. Robert M. Gates, who is to be sworn in as Rumsfeld's replacement Monday, has been taking part in the deliberations, Snow said.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said one reason Bush decided to take more time was to give Gates time to settle into his new job at the Pentagon and help develop the new policy.

She said the president is considering advice from administration officials and commanders in Iraq, and is studying the Iraq Study Group's report.

The report rejected calls for a quick withdrawal of troops but suggested that most U.S. combat forces might be withdrawn by early 2008 and that the U.S. mission should be changed from combat to training and support of Iraqi units. It also called for an energetic effort to seek a diplomatic solution to the violence in Iraq by engaging its neighbors, including Iran and Syria.

Bush has opposed direct talks with Iran until it halts uranium enrichment, preferring to let the Iraqis hold direct talks with Tehran.

Asked whether internal White House discussions are continuing, Snow said, "People are going to have disagreements, and there may be some areas on which there are still going to be debates, but most have kind of been ironed out."

Hashimi joined Hakim in expressing discontent over al-Maliki's failure to quell the violence. Hakim is among the Iraqis talking about forming a new governing alliance.

In Baghdad, the embattled prime minister said there is no alternative to his "national unity" government. Al-Maliki said moves to set up a new government should not be viewed as an attempt to topple his coalition, although he appeared to suggest that was the aim.

James Gerstenzang writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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