Bush gathers ideas on Iraq

Times Staff Writer

Launching a highly visible round of consultations as he seeks to reshape the U.S. role in Iraq, President Bush reiterated Monday that "success" there was crucial to the long-term protection of the United States, and said Iraq's regional neighbors had a responsibility to help the country's fledgling government.

Bush met with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and State Department officials, then with three retired Army generals and two outside policy experts, opening a week of conferences before announcing a new direction in Iraq.

In the aftermath of last week's sharply critical report by the Iraq Study Group, the White House is eager to draw the spotlight to other ideas and options more in keeping with Bush's goals.

Bush continues his policy review today and Wednesday, with meetings and teleconferences with U.S. military commanders and Iraqi officials, including Iraqi Vice President Tariq Hashimi, the head of the largest party representing Iraq's Sunni Arab minority, and a briefing at the Pentagon on military options.

The in-depth review comes after the report by the Iraq Study Group, a commission formed at the suggestion of Congress and originally blessed by the White House.

The panel concluded that conditions in Iraq were "grave and deteriorating," and recommended action to hand over more responsibilities to the Iraqis and withdraw most U.S. combat forces by 2008.

Bush last week voiced antipathy toward the key Iraq Study Group recommendations, which also include initiating talks with Iran and Syria, and leaning on the Iraqi government to settle political squabbles.

He then announced this week's battery of meetings as part of "extensive consultations" with experts inside and outside the government.


'The neighborhood'

Speaking with reporters at the State Department after the meetings there, Bush said that he and the advisors talked about "the neighborhood -- the countries that surround Iraq and the responsibilities that they have."

That group includes Kuwait, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran and Syria.

At lower levels, officials at the State Department are divided over whether talks with Iran and Syria could significantly help stabilize Iraq, as the Baker-Hamilton panel suggested. But at the top level, Rice and her closest aides are vigorously skeptical about the idea.

Last Friday, Rice told reporters who asked about her response to the Baker-Hamilton report:

"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."

The Iraq Study Group, led by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, a Republican, and former Indiana Rep. Lee H. Hamilton, a Democrat, recommended that the administration look for ways to talk to Iran and Syria; Bush has opposed such a course.

Bush is aiming to outline a "way forward" in Iraq in a national address, possibly before Christmas, White House officials have said -- although they have also said that the date could slip.

The president said the goal of this week's consultations was to assure the American people "that I've listened to all aspects of government," as he seeks to determine a route that will "achieve our objective: to succeed in Iraq."

White House Press Secretary Tony Snow said that Bush and the State Department officials did not specifically discuss the recommendations of the Baker-Hamilton commission, and that the meetings the president is conducting this week were not "a reaction to Baker-Hamilton."


'The phraseology'

He also said the president, in describing Iraq as "a central component of defeating the extremists" -- not as "the central front" of the terror war -- was not shifting his view, but rather varying "the phraseology."

During the afternoon, Bush met privately with five experts on Iraq and the military: Stephen Biddle, a former professor at the U.S. Army War College and fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations; Eliot A. Cohen, an expert on military strategy at the Johns Hopkins University School for Advanced International Studies in Washington; and retired Army Gens. Wayne Downing, John Keane and Barry McCaffrey.

"There were a variety of views expressed, and they seemed very interested, it was an engaging session," Biddle said after the White House gathering. "The president asked lots of questions. Everybody got to make our pitch about what we needed to tell him and react to others and react to the president. It was fairly interactive."

Biddle said the White House had asked the participants in the meeting to refrain from discussing publicly what they had discussed in the meeting. Still, the invited experts have not been shy about discussing their position on Iraq.

Most of those summoned to the White House have criticized the Iraq Study Group's central recommendation to boost the number of advisors and draw down the number of combat brigades, contending the plan could endanger U.S. troops.

Keane, in an interview with the New York Times last week, said the recommendations reflected a lack of "political will" in Washington.

Cohen, whose op-ed piece, titled "No Way to Win a War," was published in the Wall Street Journal last week and who criticized the study group's public recommendations, has questioned whether Iran or Syria would help with U.S. goals in Iraq.

But the president may have heard other ideas.

McCaffrey, like Biddle and Keane, said the study group's recommendations might endanger troops.

But in a recent interview with the Los Angeles Times, he also said the administration had failed to spend enough on the Iraqi army and police.



Times staff writers Julian E. Barnes and Doyle McManus contributed to this report.

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