President Bush, about to wrap up an intense effort to arrive at a new course for Iraq, now is likely to lay out his plan to the nation early next year instead of before Christmas, a senior White House official said Tuesday.
The possible new timing is not a reflection of a last-minute shift by the White House, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the decision was not final. Instead, the official said the president knows the direction he is likely to take his Iraq strategy and has directed his team to address the many the practical ramifications, such as for military tactics and regional diplomacy.
That work is complicated and not finished, the official said. He dismissed any suggestions that this reflects trouble arriving at decisions, or making them work.
The announcement out of the White House came after Bush conferred via videoconference with senior military commanders in Iraq, outgoing Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and his replacement Robert Gates; the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Peter Pace; and Gen. John Abizaid, the top U.S. commander in the Middle East. Participating from Iraq was Gen. George Casey, the chief U.S. commander in Iraq. Earlier Bush and Gates had breakfast.
Later in the day, the president was to meet in the Oval Office with Iraq’s Sunni vice president, Tariq al-Hashemi.
Al-Hashemi said he would tell Bush of his "dismay" over the Shiite-led Iraqi government’s handling of security. He accused the government of not doing enough to deal with militia attacks and said he was especially concerned about Baghdad, where Sunni-Shiite violence has flared in several neighborhoods in recent days.
"Slow and inadequate action is a problem that we have been facing with this government since it was formed," al-Hashemi said Monday in an interview with Baghdad TV, the mouthpiece of his Iraqi Islamic Party.
On Monday, Bush went to the State Department for a 90-minute meeting to review options with advisers there, then hosted a handful of experts on Iraq policy in the Oval Office. And on Wednesday, Bush will meet with senior defense officials at the Pentagon. Dana Perino, a Bush spokeswoman, said that would conclude the president’s listening tour on Iraq.
"I think it’s fair to say that over the next few days, after he finishes these last few meetings, that that’s when these things start to finalize and crystalize into a strategy," she said.
Two retired Army generals who met with Bush on Monday said the president was very animated, asking many questions that suggested he was open to change.
"I found him very engaged. I think he’s looking for some answers, and the impression I had was there will be some changes," said retired Gen. Wayne Downing in an interview on Tuesday with NBC’s "Today" show. "I think you’re going to see some new things come out."
Retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey said the president was "very sober-minded" and listened "intently to different views," including a difference of opinion among the former generals over the Iraq Study Group recommendation that most combat troops could be withdrawn from Iraq by the first quarter of 2008.
The president, however, has not changed his public tone about the stakes involved in the war, the importance of victory or his definition of success — sounding much as he did in the weeks before the November elections, in which unhappiness with Iraq was a big factor in the Republicans’ loss of Congress.
While a bipartisan commission last week described the situation in Iraq as "grave and deteriorating," Bush spoke in positive terms. He said his goal was to succeed in Iraq. "And success is a country that governs, defends itself, that is a free society, that serves as an ally in this war on terror."
Bush said Iraq was a key part of his strategy for "defeating the extremists who want to establish safe haven in the Middle East, extremists who would use their safe haven from which to attack the United States."
The president said his aim was to coordinate advice from his diplomatic and military advisers "so that when I do speak to the American people, they will know that I’ve listened to all aspects of government."
The administration has rejected calls for U.S. troop withdrawals until Iraq can govern and defend itself.
In an apparent reference to Syria and Iran, Bush said Iraq’s neighbors have a responsibility "to help this young Iraqi democracy survive." The bipartisan commission, headed by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III and former Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Ind., urged that the United States engage Syria and Iran but Bush has appeared cool to that idea.
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