Bush plans 'policy adjustments' in Iraq

Times Staff Writers

President Bush said Friday that he's willing to change U.S. "tactics" in Iraq once he hears recommendations from his military and diplomatic advisors, but he doesn't intend to scale back his basic goals, his spokesman said.

Bush met Friday morning with Republican and Democratic congressional leaders and said the nation needs "a new way forward in Iraq." Aides said the president will receive proposals from the Defense and State departments next week and plans to propose a set of "policy adjustments" in a speech the week before Christmas.

One of the Democrats who met with Bush, Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), said he was disappointed.

"When he talked about his approach to Iraq, there was no indication of a change in basic strategy," Durbin said. "He talked about changing some tactics."

White House spokesman Tony Snow acknowledged that the changes Bush was considering would be limited.

"What the president has said is: 'We need new tactics,' " Snow told reporters. "Now what he will not change is ... the goal, stated by the president: an Iraq that can govern itself, sustain itself and defend itself. What is important and is open for wide-ranging reviews is: What's the best way to do it?"

Snow and other senior officials refused to discuss the proposals that would be presented to Bush next week.

"I've been doing some deep thinking on Iraq -- which, if you don't mind, I'll share first with the president," said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who is scheduled to discuss the issues with Bush on Monday.

Still, in responding to the recommendations of a bipartisan commission on Iraq this week, officials have suggested the rough outlines of at least some of the measures they are considering.

In some respects, the administration's thinking comes close to the recommendations of the commission led by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III and former Rep. Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.); in others, it conflicts.

For example, Pentagon planners have long agreed with the Baker-Hamilton panel that American troops should increasingly focus on training and advising Iraqi units, and gradually withdraw from direct combat in Baghdad and other Iraqi cities.

"As we transition to Iraqi control and as I hope that we'll see us moving out of some of the major metropolitan areas ... I think we could [increase training] a lot faster than many people would believe," Lt. Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, commander of U.S. and allied ground forces in Iraq, said in a briefing.

U.S. officials have also sought for months to pressure Prime Minister Nouri Maliki to work on reconciliation among Iraq's Sunni Arab, Shiite Arab and Kurdish communities, including long-stalled measures to strengthen the Iraqi constitution's protection of minority rights and to work out a formula for sharing the country's oil revenue.

The Baker-Hamilton commission proposed that if the Iraqis do not make faster progress, "the United States should reduce its political, military or economic support for the Iraqi government." In public, the Bush administration has refused to deliver a warning that stark, fearing that it could backfire by convincing the Iraqis that U.S. troops are on their way out. But U.S. officials increasingly have talked openly about subjecting the Iraqi government to clear deadlines and benchmarks for achieving political reforms.

"I think that if we set up a series of goals, goals that are tied to dates, of certain critical things that have to be done to make all the Iraqi people believe that this is a government of national unity, that we could regain their confidence," Chiarelli said.

As for the Baker-Hamilton panel's proposal that the United States bring Iran and Syria into discussions of the future of Iraq, administration officials said they still doubt such contacts would do much good. But they said they were open to the idea of Iran and Syria participating in international conferences if the Baghdad government wanted to invite them.

"The Iraqis are very engaged with their neighbors; we will support their diplomacy in ways that they find useful and that we find useful," Rice said, but added: "In both Syria and Iran, you have states that have chosen to be on the side of the divide that is fueling extremism, not moderation. And that is the essential problem."

Putting an unusual spotlight on a normally closed-door process, the White House announced Bush's schedule of policy briefings next week and said he would make public remarks after at least one of the sessions.

National Security Council spokesman Gordon D. Johndroe said Bush would go to the State Department to be briefed by Rice and her aides Monday, would consult with U.S. military commanders in Iraq by videoconference on Tuesday, and would go to the Pentagon to hear the results of a review commissioned by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Marine Gen. Peter Pace, on Wednesday.

The public show of deliberation appeared aimed at making the point that Bush is actively leading the search for new ideas on Iraq, not merely reacting to recommendations from outsiders -- or "outsourcing" presidential decisions, as Snow put it.

A major debate in the Pentagon, apparently unresolved, is whether to propose a short-term increase or "surge" in troop strength in Iraq to make one last try at stabilizing Baghdad, as Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and some others have urged.

Gen. John P. Abizaid, commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, and some other military officers have argued that while such a surge is possible, it would be costly -- and, in any case, that political reforms in Iraq would be more important to achieve.

"I definitely think that this is winnable, but we've got to ... convince the Iraqis that it's not just the military alone that will solve the problems that face them," Chiarelli said.

Many military officers say they believe U.S. forces can still quell Iraq's insurgency and ease the sectarian violence, but only if the United States is willing to contribute more troops, more time, more money or all three.

"I think there will be some [troop increases]," said William Nash, a retired major general and analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations. "You can increase the troops by altering the way you rotate troops. You can do it for a little while, but you cannot do it for long."

The easiest way to boost the number of troops, officers said, is to alter their rotation schedule. Although the military has been looking for ways to increase the brigades' time at home to improve their training, it could speed up their deployments.

One of the most likely candidates is the 3rd Infantry Division, which served in Iraq in 2003 and 2005. The division is set to return in 2007, and its deployment conceivably could be moved up.

The military also could draw troops from Asia -- Marines in Okinawa or soldiers in South Korea. However, recent threats from North Korea, which has conducted missile tests and nuclear weapons in the past five months, could dissuade generals from considering the move as their first choice.

Still, such temporary increases have caused problems. For substantial, long-term troop increases, the military would need to remobilize the National Guard, experts said -- a politically unpopular move for any president. However, Chiarelli signaled commanders are willing to offer tough advice.

"I know I am leaving Iraq in a more uncertain and somewhat more tumultuous state than the last time I left," said Chiarelli, who is reaching the end of his second tour in Iraq. "We should not give in to the defeatist mood that I sometimes see displayed. This mission is the most critical and significant that we've undertaken in perhaps 50 years, and failure, in my opinion, is not an option."

doyle.mcmanus@latimes.com

julian.barnes@latimes.com

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