Bush, Blair huddle to discuss Iraq

President Bush, facing urgent pressure to find a fresh strategy in Iraq, met with British Prime Minister Tony Blair on Thursday, a day after a bipartisan commission report said his war policies have failed and that "time is running out."

The Iraq Study Group’s report, which said the situation in Iraq was "grave and deteriorating" after nearly four years of bloodshed, was among topics of Bush’s talks with Blair.

Their meeting began as one of the leaders of the study group said that a new U.S. approach to Iraq war cannot be unrealistic and must be a bipartisan effort between Bush and Congress. Leaders in Europe, who have been sharply critical of the Bush administration’s occupation of Iraq, welcomed the U.S. advisory group’s report on Iraq as a necessary course correction and a first step in a more realistic American view of the conflict.

Bush, possibly with counsel from Blair, could embrace some or all 79 of the Iraq Study Group’s recommendations. The president also could ignore them and chart his own new course based on internal reviews being done at the Pentagon, State Department and the White House.

"It’s clear that the present situation is not one that could be sustained or accepted," White House press secretary Tony Snow said Wednesday.

The panel’s recommendations ranged from gradually withdrawing U.S. combat forces during the next year to ramping up the training of Iraqi security forces to enlisting diplomatic help from Iraq’s neighbors — not only to resolve problems in Iraq but to find an end to the long-running conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

The White House was cautious not to specifically reject any of the group’s ideas outright and vowed that Bush would entertain suggestions from all political circles before charting a new way forward.

But the president already has rejected the idea of direct talks with Iran and Syria. The administration continues to insist that Iran verifiably suspend uranium enrichment before the United States would start direct talks, although Snow left the door open for discussions through an outside group.

"There’s some very good ideas in there," Bush said about the report after meeting Wednesday afternoon with lawmakers. "Not all of us around the table agree with every idea, but we do agree that it shows that bipartisan consensus on important issues is possible."

When a reporter asked whether Bush was capable of making dramatic changes in his war plan, Snow said: "Well, you’re assuming that the president has to pull U-turns. I’m not sure I agree."

Democrats, meanwhile, clamored for change.

"I’m encouraged," said Rep. Jane Harman, D-Calif., "and I feel the stay-the-course strategy is officially dead."

"The American people have spoken," said incoming Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. "The Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group has spoken. They have all demanded a change of course in Iraq, and the Bush administration must listen."

Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said the key question was whether Bush was ready for a change of course.

"All eyes now are on this president," Schumer said.

Bush’s national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, has said Bush would make his decision within weeks.

"We believe that the situation in Iraq today is very, very serious," said James A. Baker III, the former Republican secretary of state who led the panel jointly with former Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Ind. "We do not know if it can be turned around."

While the panel concluded that a stable, democratic Iraq was still possible, its pessimistic assessment of the situation contrasted with Bush’s upbeat prediction that the U.S.-led coalition was on the road to victory.

"We’re winning, and we will win, unless we leave before the job is done," Bush said at a White House news conference on Oct. 25.

The White House insists that Bush will not outsource his decision-making on Iraq, yet the changing political landscape would seem to make it difficult for him not to embrace or — at least seriously consider — opposing views.

"The politics have shifted so this report now becomes the default position for many in the public and many in political life," said Jon B. Alterman, a former State Department official who specialized in the Middle East.

"The president now isn’t the one defining the terms of the debate. He’s responding to a debate that others have framed, and a debate that others have framed on some terms that he has said are unacceptable.

"What I think is striking is that the president has said that defeat is not an option," said Alterman, now director of Mideast programs at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "And what this report says is that defeat is a real possibility."

Leon Panetta, a Democratic member of the Iraq Study Group, said Bush needs to unify an America divided by the war.

"I think the president understands that he simply is not going to be able to proceed with whatever policy changes he wants to implement if we’re divided," Panetta said. "That is the principal goal, in my mind, that he has to accomplish."

Copyright © 2006 The Associated Press