Bush to take time with Iraq decision

Bush won't rush Iraq policy shift

December 14, 2006|By Peter Spiegel and Julian E. Barnes | Peter Spiegel and Julian E. Barnes,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- With Pentagon officials largely rejecting recommendations made by the Iraq Study Group to withdraw all U.S. combat forces over the next 15 months, President Bush warned yesterday that he would not be rushed into making a decision on a shift in policy.

Many U.S. military commanders have expressed support in recent days for a sharp increase in troops as part of a last-ditch effort to restore order in Iraq, a suggestion that Bush has not rejected. But Bush said he wants his new defense secretary to weigh in before he decides how to proceed early next year.

"I've heard some ideas that would lead to defeat," Bush said of his monthlong consultation process. "I reject those ideas - ideas such as leaving before the job is done, ideas such as not helping this [Iraqi] government take the necessary and hard steps to be able to do its job."

As part of his review, Bush held another round of discussions with senior officials involved in Iraq planning, meeting yesterday at the Pentagon with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, outgoing Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and his successor, former CIA Director Robert M. Gates.

Speaking after the 90-minute meeting in the Joint Chiefs' secure conference room, Bush denied that his views amount to a rejection of the Iraq Study Group report. But he warned that any sign of U.S. weakness in Iraq would undermine moderate Arab allies in the region and could allow extremists to control crucial oil reserves.

"If we lose our nerve, if we're not steadfast in our determination to help the Iraqi government succeed, we will be handing Iraq over to an enemy that would do us harm," Bush said.

Bush's rejection of any near-term reduction in U.S. troops has raised the prospect that he might embrace an increase in the number of American soldiers in Iraq, at least over a period of a few months.

The idea of an increase in troops has been opposed by Army Gen. John P. Abizaid, commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, but has been embraced by a growing number of military advisers inside and outside the Pentagon, several of whom have pressed the case to Bush in recent weeks.

That group might be joined today by retired Gen. Jack Keane, a former Army vice chief of staff who met with Bush this week. Keane is scheduled to appear at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative Washington think tank, to present a plan for a troop increase that was developed by AEI military analyst Frederick W. Kagan.

According to the institute, other influential current and former military leaders contributed to the report, including retired Lt. Gen. David W. Barno, the former commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

Sen. Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat and incoming chairman of the Armed Services Committee, continued to press Bush to begin a withdrawal to send a clear signal to the Iraqi government that the U.S. troop commitment is not open-ended.

He added, however, that he does not see Bush's delay in deciding on a new way forward as a mistake.

"I'd rather the right conclusion be reached in January than the wrong conclusion be reached in December," Levin told reporters after a speech at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

Democrats have been more receptive to the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group, co-chaired by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III and former Rep. Lee H. Hamilton, an Indiana Democrat, which include an effort to reach out to Iraq's meddlesome neighbors, Syria and Iran.

Sen. Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat who serves on the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees, met yesterday with Syrian President Bashar Assad in Damascus. Nelson said Assad "clearly indicated a willingness to cooperate" in securing Syria's border with Iraq, the Associated Press reported.

Bush has resisted negotiations with either country, noting their support for Iraqi insurgents and the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon.

Bush spoke by phone yesterday with Iraq's two most prominent Kurds, President Jalal Talabani and Massoud Barzani, president of Iraq's Kurdish provinces, to explore the possibility of forming a coalition of moderates within the Iraqi parliament.

Bush administration officials have suggested such a move as a way of marginalizing Shiite extremists loyal to radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and Sunni groups with links to the insurgency. Advocates see the strategy as a way to free the hand of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who remains reliant on al-Sadr's allies for his political base, and Bush appeared to support such an initiative yesterday.

"These men have been outspoken about the desire to have a moderate governing coalition, which we support," Bush said of his conversation with the Kurdish leaders.

U.S. and Iraqi officials have acknowledged that such a plan is under consideration, but it would face significant hurdles, including a potential backlash from al-Sadr, whose Mahdi Army is the most formidable Shiite militia in Iraq. Officials said the plan also could be opposed by Iraq's most influential religious leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who has urged all Shiite leaders to stick together.

Peter Spiegel and Julian E. Barnes write for the Los Angeles Times.

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