With U.S. casualties rising and pressure growing from Republican and Democratic leaders for a change of course in Iraq, President Bush said Friday that he was willing to adjust U.S. “tactics” in Baghdad but did not intend to change his strategy or long-term goals.
“We will stay in Iraq, we will fight in Iraq and we will win in Iraq,” Bush told Republican contributors in Washington. “Our goal hasn’t changed, but the tactics are constantly adjusting to an enemy which is brutal and violent.”
But pressure is mounting among some administration officials and party faithful for a major change in the way Bush is handling the war.
His remarks appeared to signal that he was open to at least a limited change in his approach, and that he was not wedded to a “stay-the-course” doctrine, as critics say. At the same time, Bush pledged to secure victory and said he would not change his administration’s strategy or overall goals, even if it shifted tactics.
He spoke at the end of a grim week that saw an American commander acknowledge that U.S. policies aimed at quelling violence in Baghdad had fallen short and on the eve of a White House conference with generals, Cabinet officials and national security advisors.
The developments came as an increasing number of Republicans questioned the wisdom of Bush’s policies in Iraq and called for new military and political options, and as expectations grew for a postelection change in direction. By adhering to longer-term goals while allowing for tactical changes, Bush could argue that military shifts did not represent a failure of policies.
In his comments, Bush said his administration’s “unchanging” goal was to enable Iraq to govern, defend and sustain itself.
But some administration officials said Friday that in the face of Iraq’s deepening troubles, they were weighing major changes in direction and expected a new course -- though not a withdrawal -- to be announced within months.
One senior official said he expected the change to come once a congressionally chartered panel, the Iraq Study Group, makes its recommendations, giving the administration “political cover.”
“We’re not going to pack up and go home,” said the official, who asked to remain anonymous because he was not authorized to speak on the subject. “But the situation is grim, and may even be worse than it looks in the media” because of frequent near-calamities in Iraq that never come to the public’s attention.
“People here are desperate, and there is a lot of deep thinking going on,” the senior official said.
Richard N. Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, an independent foreign policy organization, said opinion on the war appeared to be near “a tipping point.”
“I think we are reaching the point, and it’s going to happen soon, where simply ‘more of essentially the same’ is going to be a policy that very few people are going to be able to support,” said Haass, who was an aide to former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell.
Several strategic alternatives in Iraq are receiving the most attention, observers said.
They include setting a timetable for withdrawal; giving a larger role to other countries in the region, notably Syria and Iran, to win their cooperation on security; decentralizing the government of Iraq, or even formally dividing the country into Kurdish, Sunni Arab and Shiite states; and encouraging the formation of a new government led by a strong leader, such as an Iraqi army general.
Administration officials and outside experts said all of the options had major disadvantages and would have substantial political costs. U.S. officials said each of the alternatives had been rejected at various points by the administration.
But the senior U.S. official said some in the government continued to think about options that had been ruled out -- including a more authoritarian approach -- in hopes of establishing order as a first step toward rebuilding the country.
The official described it as a “last choice,” but said, “at some point, the situation becomes so serious that you need order, period.”
Handing the government over to a strong leader would carry large political costs. It would mean setting aside the administration’s goal of establishing an American-style government, at least temporarily. And it would mean finding what some officials call a “man on horseback” who would have support from all the major Iraqi factions -- perhaps an impossible task.
The strongman option was called the “most plausible” by scholar Eliot Cohen of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, who has close ties to the military and administration. Cohen, often described as a leading neoconservative, has been praised by Bush.
Cohen wrote in a Wall Street Journal column published Friday that the Iraq war was, “if not a failure, failing.” He said throwing U.S. support behind a strong leader would force the administration to swallow “a substantial repast of crow.”
The option of regionalizing the effort -- with the help of Iran and Syria -- appears to have the support of former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, the Iraq Study Group co-chairman.
The senior U.S. official said that such an approach would require Washington to set aside other goals regarding Syria and Iran -- including its push to keep Tehran from gaining a nuclear weapon.
“The question is, are they willing to throw out their Iran and Syria policies to help their Iraq policy?” he said. “That’s hard for me to conceive.”
The Pentagon has begun its own work on a “Plan B,” involving changes that Bush would consider tactical rather than strategic.
Pentagon officials have declined to talk about alternatives under discussion, but there are several shifts they could make.
The military could intensify its counterinsurgency efforts, moving more American units out of bases and into cities and neighborhoods -- a version of the strategy the U.S. pursued in Tall Afar and Ramadi. But those options probably would require additional troops, who most likely would come from unpopular combat tour extensions.
A probable candidate for an extension under such a scenario would be the 4th Infantry Division, which is expected to complete its yearlong tour in November and December. Keeping the division in Baghdad would provide an instant boost in the U.S. military presence.
Conversely, the military may decide to abandon its Baghdad security plan, returning more forces to bases. Such a move essentially would mean dropping a large part of the Pentagon’s counterinsurgency effort, but it could force the Iraqi military to take more responsibility.
The Pentagon also could seek to ramp up its military advisor efforts. Top Army generals have repeatedly predicted that as infantry brigades shrink, the number of military advisors working with Iraqi security forces will increase.
One military option, backed by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and others, is increasing troop levels. But administration officials are concerned that would further erode public support, and that there are no extra troops to be had in large numbers.
Bush summoned Army Gen. John P. Abizaid, the top U.S. commander in the Middle East, to the White House on Friday. The administration said Abizaid already was in the capital and Bush asked for a meeting.
Bush will consult today with Abizaid and Army Gen. George W. Casey Jr., who is commander of U.S. forces in Iraq. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, Vice President Dick Cheney and national security advisor Stephen Hadley also will take part, Rumsfeld told reporters.
Abizaid will appear via teleconference from the U.S. Central Command in Florida and Casey will take part from Baghdad.
Democrats sought Friday to use the acknowledged breakdown of the Baghdad offensive as an opportunity to emphasize their case for a phased withdrawal from Iraq.
“It has never been more clear that we need to change course in Iraq,” House and Senate Democratic leaders wrote in a letter to Bush.
Times staff writers Julian E. Barnes and Peter Spiegel contributed to this report.