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‘DIFFICULT YEAR’ IN IRAQ, BUSH CONCEDES

Times Staff Writer

President Bush, saying he was still considering options for “a new way forward” in Iraq, delivered an uncharacteristically dour assessment Wednesday of the war and called 2006 a “difficult year” in which extremists thwarted efforts to establish security and stability in the country.

Appearing reflective in a year-end news conference, Bush said the optimism generated after Iraqis elected a new government last December had fallen away as extremists undertook “a deliberate strategy to foment sectarian violence between Sunnis and Shia. And over the course of the year, they had success. Their success hurt our efforts to help the Iraqis rebuild their country.”

With Bush reassessing his Iraq policy and expected to announce changes early next month, his statements reflected a new willingness to acknowledge that the sectarian violence in Iraq has grown consistently worse and that political cooperation there is flagging. He has come under intense pressure to change course in the war -- from Democrats and the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, and because his Republican Party lost control of Congress in the midterm election.

The president said he would work with Republicans and Democrats “and listen to ideas from every quarter” to redraw his approach. But Bush also said he would not change his objective. “Our goal remains a free and democratic Iraq that can govern itself, sustain itself and defend itself, and is an ally in this war on terror,” he said.

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Moreover, he said that American troops remained in Iraq because they would be successful. “Victory in Iraq is achievable,” he said. “It hasn’t happened nearly as quickly as I hoped it would have.... But I also don’t believe most Americans want us just to get out now.”

Bush said he would not adjust his Iraq policies before talking with Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who was sworn in Monday and who by Wednesday had landed in Baghdad to meet with U.S. commanders and others there. One option under consideration is a temporary increase in U.S. troop levels. Bush said that such a surge was not certain, and that before he sent in additional troops, “there must be a specific mission that can be accomplished.”

In Baghdad, Gates gave no hints as to what new strategy he preferred but acknowledged he and American generals had discussed the possibility of a surge of forces into the Iraqi capital.

Army Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, who has been resistant to proposals to increase troop levels, appeared to qualify his objections after meeting with Gates. “I’m not necessarily opposed to the idea,” he told a news conference.

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“What I want to see happen is, if we do bring more American troops here, they help us progress toward our strategic objectives.”

Bush’s comments Wednesday did not satisfy senior Democratic leaders in Congress. In similar statements, Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the incoming Democratic majority leader, and Rep. Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco, the incoming House speaker, said Bush did not understand the need for a more dramatic change in Iraq.

“The president seems lost within his own rhetoric,” Reid said. “He is grasping for a victory his current policies have put out of reach, and leaving our troops stuck policing a civil war.” Reid, who has given qualified support to increasing troops in Iraq if it leads to Iraqis picking up security responsibilities, also said that Bush should follow the course that Democrats and the Iraq Study Group recommended for withdrawal of U.S. troops.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) said on NBC’s “Today” show that her support for a temporary troop increase would depend on their mission.

“Everyone knows there is no military solution to the difficulties we face in Iraq,” she said. “There has to be a broad-based, comprehensive approach that includes resolving some of the political issues, bringing the region together.”

Bush spoke in the Indian Treaty Room -- an elaborate, marble-lined, two-story room at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, next door to the White House. It was the site of the first televised presidential news conference, conducted in January 1955 by Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Iraq dominated the 50-minute news conference, just as it has the bulk of Bush’s presidency.

The president said that if he did not think the U.S. could accomplish its objectives in Iraq, then U.S. troops would not be there. “I want the enemy to understand that this is a tough task, but they can’t run us out of the Middle East, that they can’t intimidate America,” he said. “They think they can. They think it’s just a matter of time before America grows weary and leaves, abandons the people of Iraq, for example. And that’s not going to happen.”

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The president also said he was “inclined to believe” that the Army and Marines must increase the size of their permanent forces.

“This war on terror is the calling of a new generation; it is the calling of our generation.... We have an obligation to ensure our military is capable of sustaining this war over the long haul,” he said. He said he had asked Gates “to determine how such an increase could take place and report back to me as quickly as possible.”

White House officials had revealed Tuesday that Bush was considering a boost in permanent force levels, and the president himself talked about the idea that day in an interview with the Washington Post.

With two years remaining in his term, Bush, the nation’s 43rd president, was asked what elements of his presidency would be his legacy.

“I’m going to sprint to the finish, and we can get a lot done,” he replied. “And you’re talking about legacy. I know, look, everybody is trying to write the history of this administration even before it’s over. I’m reading about George Washington still. My attitude is, if they’re still analyzing number one, 43 ought not to worry about it and just do what he thinks is right.”

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james.gerstenzang@ latimes.com

Times staff writers Peter Spiegel and Maura Reynolds contributed to this report.

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