Bush faces tough week on Iraq hot seat

President George W. Bush embarks on a soul-searching quest for a new Iraq policy this week, after the shock-therapy indictment of his conduct of the war by an independent policy commission.

Bush will huddle with top foreign policy and military aides, seeking to bounce back after the Iraq Study Group’s warning that Iraq’s plight is "grave and deteriorating" and without urgent action could spark a regional crisis.

Intense scrutiny, which built up ahead of the report, has now shifted to the White House, as Bush sifts options and sees his political base erode, as rival Democrats gear up to take over Congress in the new year.

The White House says Bush is aiming to unveil his new approach in a speech to the nation before Christmas.

"This, in the end, is about what happens on Pennsylvania Avenue and in the Oval Office," said Bruce Riedel, a veteran US foreign policy official, now with the Brookings Institution.

"The purpose of this commission is shock therapy for the Oval Office to give them an extremely cold shower and say to the President the course you are on is going to lead to catastrophe and you have got to change it," he said at a Brookings briefing.

One key question: will Bush accept the political cover offered by the study group and embrace its 79 recommendations or strike out with his own new policy?

Early signs are that the president is loathe to accept calls by the 10-member bipartisan group for US talks with Syria and Iran on saving Iraq.

Such a move would require a repudiation of his own diplomatic doctrine, that such states guilty of "bad behavior" don’t deserve the prize of engagement with Washington.

Bush also distanced himself from the study’s groups recommendation to aim to withdraw most combat troops by 2008 based on a drive to force leaders of Iraqi government factions into reconciliation and accelarated training of Iraq’s armed forces by US embedded instructors.

He stressed Thursday troop withdrawals will be solely contingent on conditions on the ground, and advice from military commanders.

Despite the clamor in Washington for Bush to embrace the report, the White House views it as only one source of advice. Several internal administration studies of Iraq policy are shortly expected to conclude.

"There are other recommendations and suggestions and analyses coming his way in the very near future. It’s his job … to try to come up with the best complex of policies," said White House spokesman Tony Snow.

Three options being looked at by the White House and reported by The Washington Post Saturday, include: a short-term surge of 15,000 to 30,000 troops to pacify Baghdad; a plan to disengage from internal strife to focus on hunting terrorists; a move to support the Shiite majority and abandon efforts to court Sunni insurgents.

Bush will make a public show of his deliberations, starting the week with a visit to the State Department and meetings with top outside experts in the Oval Office. On Tuesday, he will have a video-conference with military commanders and US ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad. Wednesday will see Bush at the Pentagon.

Political ground meanwhile is eroding beneath the president, with Democrats defiant and even staunch Republican supporters casting him off.

Incoming Democratic speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi said sharply after meeting Bush Friday, "hopefully the president has got the message."

And even Oregon Senator Gordon Smith, formerly supportive of the administration over Iraq, cut and ran from his leader, saying in an emotional speech Thursday he was tired of hearing about US fatalities.

"So let’s cut and run, or cut and walk … we have fought this war in a very lamentable way," Smith said.

Another imponderable, as Bush seeks a new policy is the role of new Defense Secretary Robert Gates, due to be sworn in on December 18.

Gates, a former member of the Iraq Study Group, surprised many people here last week, candidly admitting the United States was not winning in Iraq — a rhetorical step Bush has still yet to take.

And as always, the breakneck pace of Iraq’s deterioration has the capacity to make Washington policy jousts seem hollow and even irrelevant.

Copyright © 2006 Agence France Presse