President Bush on Wednesday defended his decision to put off his widely anticipated shift in Iraq policy until early next year, saying he wanted his new Defense secretary to weigh in and warning he would not be rushed into making a decision on how to proceed.
As part of his review, Bush held another round of discussions with senior officials involved in Iraq planning, this time meeting the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon, along with outgoing Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and his successor, former CIA Director Robert M. Gates.
Although Bush declined to comment on the advice he received from the military leaders, Pentagon officials have said in recent days that top uniformed officers largely have rejected recommendations made by the Iraq Study Group to withdraw most combat forces over the next 15 months, a rejection Bush appeared to agree with.
Instead, many military commanders have voiced support for a sharp increase in troops as part of a last-ditch effort to restore order, a suggestion Bush has not rejected.
"I've heard some ideas that would lead to defeat," Bush said of his monthlong consultation process. "I reject those ideas -- ideas such as leaving before the job is done, ideas such as not helping this [Iraqi] government take the necessary and hard steps to be able to do its job."
A surge in troops?
Speaking after the 90-minute meeting in the Joint Chiefs' secure conference room known as "the tank," Bush denied that his views amounted to a rejection of the Iraq Study Group report. But he warned that any sign of U.S. weakness in Iraq would undermine moderate Arab allies in the region and could allow extremists to control crucial oil reserves.
"If we lose our nerve, if we're not steadfast in our determination to help the Iraqi government succeed, we will be handing Iraq over to an enemy that would do us harm," Bush said.
The president's dismissal of any near-term reduction in U.S. troop strength has raised the prospect that he might embrace a surge in the number of American forces in Iraq, at least over a period of a few months.
A troop increase has been opposed by Army Gen. John P. Abizaid, commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, but it has been embraced by a growing number of military advisors inside and outside the Pentagon, several of whom have pressed the case to Bush in recent weeks.
That group may be joined today by retired Army Gen. John Keane, an influential former vice chief of staff who met with Bush earlier in the week. Keane is to appear at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative Washington think tank, to present a plan for a troop increase that was developed by think tank military analyst Frederick W. Kagan.
According to the think tank, other influential current and former military leaders contributed to the report, including retired Lt. Gen. David W. Barno, former commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the incoming chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, continued to press Bush to begin a withdrawal to send a clear signal to the Iraqi government that U.S. troop commitment was not open-ended.
He added, however, that he did not see Bush's delay in deciding on a new way forward as a mistake.
"I'd rather the right conclusion be reached in January than the wrong conclusion be reached in December," Levin told reporters after a speech at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
Democrats have been more receptive to recommendations of the Iraq Study Group, led by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III and former Rep. Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.), which included a push to reach out to Iraq's meddlesome neighbors, Syria and Iran.
Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), a member of the Armed Services and Foreign Relation committees, met on Wednesday with Syrian President Bashar Assad in Damascus. After the meeting, Nelson said Assad had "clearly indicated a willingness to cooperate" in securing Syria's border with Iraq, the Associated Press reported.
Bush has resisted negotiations with either country, citing their support for Iraqi insurgents and the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon.
Talks with Kurdish leaders
Bush on Wednesday also talked by telephone to Iraq's two most prominent Kurdish leaders, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and Massoud Barzani, president of Iraq's Kurdish provinces, to explore the possibility of forming a coalition of moderates within the Iraqi parliament.
Administration officials have suggested such a move as a way of marginalizing Shiites loyal to radical cleric Muqtada Sadr and Sunni groups with links to the insurgency.
Advocates see the strategy as a way to free the hand of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, who remains reliant on Sadr's allies for his political base.
Bush appeared to support such an initiative Wednesday. "These men have been outspoken about the desire to have a moderate governing coalition, which we support," he said of his conversation with the Kurdish leaders.
U.S. and Iraqi officials have acknowledged such a plan is still under consideration, but it faces significant hurdles, including a backlash from Sadr, whose Al Mahdi army is the most formidable Shiite militia in Iraq. In addition, officials said, it could be opposed by Iraq's most influential religious leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who has urged all Shiite leaders to stick together.
Times staff writer Paul Richter contributed to this report.