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President Bush on Tuesday put off until early next month announcing a new approach to the Iraq war, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Bush should take whatever time necessary to decide his next steps.
The White House initially indicated that Bush would deliver the speech before Christmas.
While administration officials said Bush had largely decided on where he wants to go in terms of a new policy, he gave no public hint of his plan at a meeting with the country’s Sunni vice president.
"Our objective is to help the Iraqi government deal with the extremists and the killers, and support the vast majority of Iraqis who are reasonable, who want peace," Bush said after an Oval Office meeting Tuesday with Tariq al-Hashemi.
Taking questions after a State Department meeting with Australia’s foreign minister, Rice said there were several factors behind the delay — including a desire to allow incoming Defense Secretary Robert Gates to settle in and help in developing the new policy. Gates starts the job on Dec. 18.
"The president’s goal and indeed his responsibility is to do precisely what he said he would do," Rice said. She said that was to present to the American people "a new way forward."
"It only makes sense for the president to take whatever time he needs to have confidence in the course that he will put forward before the American people," she said.
Rice’s Australian counterpart, Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, said it may be necessary to make changes to U.S. policy "here and there" but expressed general support for Bush’s policy to keep troops in Iraq until that government can better defend itself.
"We believe that if the United States were to withdraw too quickly and inappropriately, the consequences would not only be disastrous for the Iraqi people" but neighboring countries could be drawn into the conflict, he said.
Australia is a staunch U.S. ally in the war on terrorism, with troops in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
Rice said there were a lot things the president wanted to consider before addressing the nation, including seeking advice from administration officials and commanders in Iraq and further studying the report of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group issued last week.
"It should not be surprising he wants to take time to digest that," she said.
The report rejected calls for quick withdrawal of troops, but suggested that most combat troops be withdrawn by early 2008 and the U.S. mission be changed from combat to training and support of Iraqi units. It also calls for an energetic effort to seek a diplomatic solution to Iraq’s violence by engaging its neighbors, including Iran and Syria.
Downer said it may be necessary to make changes to U.S. policy "here and there" but expressed general support for Bush’s policy to keep troops in Iraq until that government can better defend itself.
Appearing with the visiting Sunni leader, Bush took no questions about the announcement by his aides that he would wait until the new year before laying out a new course for U.S. involvement in Iraq.
Though it had been the president’s desire to unveil what he has been calling his "new way forward" before Christmas, Bush told his staff Tuesday that it needed to wait, said press secretary Tony Snow.
The spokesman insisted that the new timing is not a reflection of a major last-minute shift by the White House, or that Bush is grasping for answers. Instead, the president knows the general direction he is likely to take his Iraq strategy and has instructed his team to address the many the practical ramifications, such as for military tactics and regional diplomacy, Snow said.
"It’s a complicated business and there are a lot of things to take into account," the spokesman added.
The timing shift comes as public dissatisfaction with the president’s handling of Iraq is at an all-time high, and Democrats are about to take control of Congress because of midterm elections that turned in large part on that issue.
Earlier Tuesday, 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. Bush and Gates also had breakfast.
Al-Hashemi had said in advance of his visit that he intended to 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.
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.
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.
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