The president vowed not to retreat from U.S. goals in the Middle East.
WASHINGTON -- The question to President Bush was brash and biting. Was he in denial about how bad things are in Iraq? And was he really sincere about changing course?
Bush bristled. "It's bad in Iraq. That help?" he snapped. "Make no mistake about it: I understand how tough it is, sir."
The question came from a British journalist at a joint news conference Thursday with British Prime Minister Tony Blair after Bush, in a moment of understatement, said the violence in Iraq was "unsettling."
Just a day earlier, the bipartisan Iraq Study Group had presented the president with a report saying that "the situation in Iraq is grave and deteriorating." The terms "unsettling" and "grave" suggested that Bush and the 10-member commission had a decidedly different take on Iraq.
Over the course of the news conference, that became clear.
In a chilly response to some key recommendations, Bush objected to talks with Iran and Syria, refused to endorse a major troop withdrawal and vowed no retreat from embattled U.S. goals in the Mideast.
'Absolutely correct' vision
Blair, an unflagging ally in the unpopular war, stood with Bush and wholeheartedly supported his determination to fight to victory in Iraq and spread democracy across the Middle East.
"The vision is absolutely correct," Blair said. The two leaders agreed, nevertheless, on a need for new approaches in Iraq.
"I thought we would succeed quicker than we did," Bush said. "And I am disappointed by the pace of success."
Aside from its blistering assessment of U.S. involvement in Iraq, the bipartisan commission recommended fundamentally different U.S. policies. Its key recommendations called for direct engagement with Iran and Syria as part of a new diplomatic initiative and a pullback of all American combat brigades by early 2008, barring unexpected developments.
While calling the report constructive, Bush and Blair took an unapologetic, almost defiant tone about their decisions and their resolve to keep up the struggle against extremists. The two leaders did not appear to agree with the commission's conclusion that America's ability to shape outcomes was diminishing and time was running out.
"We're going to succeed," the president said. "I believe we'll prevail."
Blair defined the challenge as "a struggle between freedom and democracy on the one hand and terrorism and sectarianism on the other. And it's a noble mission and it's the right mission."
The leaders of the Iraq Study Group -- former secretary of state James A. Baker III and former Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Ind. -- defended the panel's recommendations during an appearance before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
A recipe for defeat
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., took issue with the commission's call for phasing out the U.S. combat role over the next 15 months and focusing instead on training and advising the Iraqi army. He rejected the idea that the Army and Marines cannot spare more combat forces for Iraq duty.
"There's only one thing worse than an overstressed Army and Marine Corps, and that's a defeated Army and Marine Corps," said McCain, a Vietnam War veteran and a 2008 Republican presidential hopeful. "I believe this is a recipe that will lead to our defeat sooner or later in Iraq."
Under intense pressure to take a new direction, Bush is expected to make a major speech about Iraq before Christmas. He said his decisions will be based on the recommendations of separate studies from the Pentagon, State Department and National Security Council as well as the Baker-Hamilton group.
The administration agreed with the commission's call for a new round of Middle East diplomacy to address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will travel to the Middle East early next year, the State Department said. "I would expect in the days, weeks, months and years ahead that you are going to see her devote a tremendous amount of energy" to the Mideast, spokesman Sean McCormack said.
Blair said he would go to the Middle East next week, too, and Bush endorsed his mission.
Battered in the polls, Bush and Blair have paid a heavy price for the war. The Democratic takeover of Congress was attributed in large measure to voters' unhappiness with Bush and his Iraq policy. But the two leaders said it was essential to support moderates and reformers across the Middle East and to back the Iraqi government led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki at a time of increasing sectarian violence.
Bush and Blair were deeply skeptical of the commission's call for direct engagement with Iran and Syria. Bush said a proposed international conference to help Iraq was an interesting idea but Iran and Syria "shouldn't bother to show up" unless they stop funding terrorists.
Blair said Iran had been a troublemaker particularly in southern Iraq. "It's been basically arming, financing, supporting terrorism," he said.
Bush ruled out talks with Iran unless it steps away from a suspected nuclear weapons program by suspending uranium enrichment. He accused Syria of undermining the fragile government of Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora. Beyond that, Bush said, Syria should "stop allowing money and arms to cross your border into Iraq. Don't provide safe haven for terrorist groups."
Bush was lukewarm about the commission's call for withdrawal of all combat brigades by 2008 as the role of U.S. troops shifts from combat to training Iraqi soldiers and police.
"I've always said we'd like our troops out as fast as possible," the president said. He said any troop plans have to be "flexible and realistic" and depend on conditions on the ground. He said he would be guided by the recommendations of military commanders "based upon whether or not we're achieving our stated objective."
Bush was unwavering about Iraq. "We will stand firm again in this first war of the 21st century. We will defeat the extremists and the radicals. We will help a young democracy prevail in Iraq."