President Bush has been actively soliciting ideas and proposals about a course correction in Iraq from an array of senior aides, congressional and military leaders, Iraqi officials and others, and plans to announce a “new way forward” soon, senior administration officials said Sunday.
National security advisor Stephen Hadley and Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad sought to portray Bush’s actions as a bold leadership step, not a reaction to calls for a change in strategy by the Iraq Study Group, congressional Democrats and even his own outgoing Defense secretary, Donald H. Rumsfeld.
They said an internal Rumsfeld memo proposing major changes in Iraq policy that surfaced publicly Saturday was actually part of that initiative, not an admission of failure or a reflection of dissension.
“The president had asked agencies to begin a review of our policy in Iraq, and what Secretary Rumsfeld did, I think, very helpfully, was put together a sort of laundry list of ideas that ought to be considered,” Hadley told ABC’s “This Week.”
“We have to make some changes,” he said. “We need a new way forward in Iraq, and that’s what this policy review is all about.”
On CBS’ “Face The Nation,” Hadley said there was no timetable for the plan, but “I think it’s going to be weeks, not months.”
Khalilzad told CNN’s “Late Edition” that the efforts by the bipartisan Iraq Study Group -- which is expected to release a report Wednesday calling for gradual troop withdrawal -- helped spur the administration into seeking its own alternatives on what to do next, particularly from top officials like Rumsfeld.
“It is energizing to review and adjust,” Khalilzad said.
Bush repeatedly has rejected a wholesale pullout of troops, or what the White House calls artificially imposed deadlines, saying Thursday: “This business about a graceful exit just simply has no realism to it at all.”
On Sunday, Hadley and Khalilzad emphasized that even as the president considers calls for a drawdown by the study group, Rumsfeld, Democrats in Congress and others, his main goal is to shift responsibility to Iraqi political and military leaders and force them to more quickly assume control of the country.
The White House is preparing for an important week in the increasingly contentious debate over Iraq, focusing not only on whether -- and when -- U.S. troops should be withdrawn, but on administration fears that Iraqi officials will not be able to keep their country from plunging deeper into civil war among Kurds, Shiites and Sunni Arabs.
Officials are particularly concerned whether Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki and his government can stand up to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr and his armed followers, whom U.S. officials have characterized as “death squads.”
Bush is to meet today with Abdelaziz Hakim, a Shiite cleric and Sadr’s main rival, to discuss ways of stanching the bloodshed and strengthening Maliki’s fractured government.
Hakim, who is linked to a militia blamed for some of the sectarian killing, will press Bush to accelerate the handover of security control to Iraq in exchange for promises to rein in militias accused of using the Shiite-dominated police force as a cover for killing Sunnis, said Sheik Diyadhin Fayadh, a senior member of the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. He will also reassure Bush that Iran will not be allowed to exert undue influence in Iraq, Fayadh said.
Khalilzad said the meeting with Hakim and one planned with Iraqi Vice President Tariq Hashimi, a Sunni leader, are designed to give Bush a chance to encourage Iraqis “to come together, to unite, to reconcile, and to confront extremists.”
The officials’ appearances on the Sunday television shows came on the heels of two embarrassing leaks, both to the New York Times, concerning the administration’s efforts in Iraq. The first disclosed a classified memo from Hadley to Bush expressing concerns about Maliki’s leadership abilities. That came Wednesday, just before a meeting between Bush and the Iraqi.
The second came Saturday, when an internal Nov. 6 memo from Rumsfeld to Bush surfaced in which the Defense secretary acknowledged that the current strategy in Iraq “is not working well enough or fast enough.”
Rumsfeld, who resigned two days after writing the memo, called for a “major adjustment” in U.S. strategy. His proposals included calls for the administration to be more “minimalist” in its goals in Iraq and its troop presence. Many were similar to ideas pushed by Democrats in Congress.
Noting the similarities, some Democrats on Sunday condemned Rumsfeld’s memo, saying it was emblematic of an administration that was too inflexible on Iraq until after the GOP’s crushing electoral defeat that cost it control of Congress.
Others said they still doubted that Bush would offer a substantially new plan. “I don’t think he listens to Republicans, and he doesn’t listen to Democrats,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said on “Late Edition.” “He listens only to the selected few around him who essentially cater to this ‘stay the course’ theory.”
Some Republicans were also critical of the White House’s promises of change.
“We have to have a reality check here. And memos being leaked and all of that -- that’s interesting Shakespearean drama,” Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) told CBS. “But bottom line is, if for no other reason, we need a policy worthy of the young men and women serving in Iraq today. And we don’t have one.”
Times staff writers Alexandra Zavis and Raheem Salman in Baghdad contributed to this report.