Bush holds White House strategy session on war policy in Iraq

Sunday, October 22, 2006

WASHINGTON -- President Bush on Saturday reviewed Iraq strategy with top war commanders and national security advisers, but indicated little inclination for major changes to an increasingly divisive policy.

"Our goal in Iraq is clear and unchanging: Our goal is victory," Bush said in his weekly radio address. "What is changing are the tactics we use to achieve that goal."

Under bipartisan, pre-election pressure for a significant re-examination of the president's war plan, the White House is walking a fine line.

It made sure to publicize the president's high-level meeting on the deteriorating conditions in Iraq -- October already is the deadliest month this year for U.S. troops. At the same time, officials characterized the session as routine and part of a continuing discussion that seeks merely tactical adjustments to -- not a radical overhaul of -- war policy.

"I wouldn't read into this somehow that there is a full-scale push for a major re-evaluation," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said about the White House meeting. Rice, traveling from Asia to Moscow, stressed to reporters that Bush talks often with his generals in Iraq, and did so recently at Camp David.

On Friday, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said U.S. officials -- Gen. George Casey, head of the U.S.-led Multinational Forces in Iraq, and U.S. ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad among them -- are working with the Iraqi government to develop projections as to when they think they can pass off various pieces of responsibility for security and governing.

The New York Times, in an article posted on its Web page Saturday, said a plan being formulated by Casey and Khalilzad would likely for the first time outline to Iraq milestones for disarming sectarian militias and meeting other political and economic goals. But it said the blueprint, to be presented to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki by the end of this year, would not threaten Iraq with a withdrawal of U.S. troops.

In a candid assessment of the situation in Iraq, Alberto Fernandez, director of public diplomacy in the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs at the State Department, said in an interview aired Saturday on al-Jazeera television that the United States had shown "arrogance" and "stupidity" in Iraq but was now willing to talk to any group, outside of al-Qaida, to further reconciliation in the country.

A senior Bush administration official questioned whether the remarks had been translated correctly. "Those comments obviously don't reflect our position," said the official, who asked not to be identified because a transcript had not been available for review.

The 90-minute White House session Saturday brought together Gen. John Abizaid, the top U.S. commander in the Middle East; Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Bush's national security adviser, Stephen Hadley; and Rumsfeld and other officials. Participating by videoconference were Vice President Dick Cheney, Casey and Khalilzad.

The meeting followed up on Bush's half-hour talk on Friday with Abizaid.

The White House did not allow reporters to cover either and provided few details after each, but did release an official photo of Saturday's meeting.

Recent developments in Iraq and at home have put Bush in a delicate political position ahead of the Nov. 7 elections. With GOP control of Congress at stake, voters are expected to be influenced greatly by the nearly four-year-old war.

The discussion of new approaches comes as public pessimism about the war rises. Almost two-thirds in a Newsweek poll released Saturday said the U.S. is losing ground in its efforts to establish security and democracy in Iraq. An AP-Ipsos poll this month found that just over one-third of Americans surveyed say they approve of Bush's handling of Iraq overall.

Last week, the U.S. military spokesman in Iraq acknowledged a stepped-up operation to secure Baghdad was failing after two months and that it needed to be refocused.

Though Bush and his aides publicly voice the utmost confidence in Maliki, frustration is growing with his lack of progress in reining in militias. On Friday, gunmen loyal to an anti-American Shiite cleric briefly seized a major southern city, an embarrassment for the local Iraqi security forces.

An independent commission led by former secretary of State James A. Baker III and former Democratic Rep. Lee Hamilton of Indiana is not expected to make its recommendations for a new strategy until December or January. But Bush and his aides have rejected the most drastic ideas that some have floated, such as partitioning Iraq into semiautonomous Shiite, Sunni and Kurd regions or setting a timetable for a phased withdrawal of troops.

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: