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Stage set for Iraq policy shift

Democratic control of the House and possibly the Senate, combined with the resignation of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, has set the stage for a dramatic shift in the Bush administration's policy toward the Iraq war, lawmakers and experts said.
US President Bush announces his new Secretary of Defense in Washington
U.S. President George W. Bush announces Wednesday that former CIA director Robert Gates, right, will replace Donald Rumsfeld as Secretary of Defense. Rumsfeld, the controversial face of U.S. war policy, quit on the same day after Democrats rode Americans' anger and frustration over Iraq to victory in Tuesday's congressional elections.Kevin Lamarque / Reuters
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Democratic control of the House and possibly the Senate, combined with the resignation of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, has set the stage for a dramatic shift in the Bush administration's policy toward the Iraq war, lawmakers and experts said. The contours of a new policy are not clear, but there is likely to be more pressure on the Iraqi government to rein in sectarian violence and a growing clamor from Democrats to begin a drawdown of U.S. troops.

Rumsfeld is slated to be replaced by Robert M. Gates, a member of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group who has spent recent weeks learning the problems of the administration's current approach. Unlike Rumsfeld, who was widely seen as a roadblock to a shift in strategy, Gates is expected to be much more receptive to implementing the group's recommendations, due to be made public about Dec. 7.

Gates has been frustrated that the administration has been unable to adjust to changing circumstances in Iraq, according to one person who has spoken to him about the administration's management of the war. Gates, he said, believes "you can't be afraid to adjust your action to adjust to the realities on the ground."

Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), who would chair the Senate Foreign Relations Committee if Democrats capture the Virginia Senate seat and control of the Senate, said he understood that Gates "has a much more pragmatic and realistic view of the place we find ourselves" in Iraq and is much more willing to work with the uniformed military than Rumsfeld was.

Even before the election, both Democrats and Republicans had been eagerly awaiting the recommendations of the study group, which is headed by former secretary of state James A. Baker III, a Republican, and former Democratic representative Lee Hamilton of Indiana. The group of mainstream foreign policy experts is not poised to make radical suggestions when it unveils its report, but official Washington has expected both parties to seize on its ideas for political cover.

'Narrow window'
One senior Senate aide said both parties are looking for an exit from Iraq out of "pure political interests." After their devastating losses, Republicans do not want Iraq to be an electoral albatross in 2008; Democrats, meanwhile, do not want it to still be the first order of business if they reoccupy the White House in 2009.

Biden said that a number of Republicans have told him privately that they are willing to push for a change in course on Iraq after the election. "We have a narrow window before 2008 kicks in to get a bipartisan consensus on Iraq," he said.

The administration has long set a goal of a stable, democratic Iraq, suggesting that major troop withdrawals could not be expected until the Iraqi government was capable of sustaining that enterprise itself.

"I'd like our troops to come home, too, but I want them to come home with victory, and that is a country that can govern itself, sustain itself and defend itself," President Bush said yesterday at a news conference. But he added that "Iraq is not working well enough, fast enough."

The Baker-Hamilton study group is not expected to call for pulling out of Iraq quickly. Rather, insiders say, the most likely recommendation will be to curtail the goal of democratizing Iraq and instead emphasize stability. That might entail devoting more resources to training and equipping Iraq's military, perhaps by radically increasing the size of the U.S. training and advisory effort.

Bush, who will meet with the Baker-Hamilton group next week, told reporters he is awaiting its report, mentioning twice more in his news conference that he would "work" with them. In announcing the nomination of Gates, Bush said that "he will provide the department with a fresh perspective and new ideas on how America can achieve our goals in Iraq."

Democrats served notice that they will push for a change in approach, such as beginning a phased withdrawal of U.S. troops soon. "The American people have spoken," said Rep. Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), who is in line to become House speaker in January. "It's important for us to work in a bipartisan way with the president, again, to solve the problem, not to stay the course. That's not working. That's clear."

Specifically, Pelosi said, the administration and Congress need to work together "to send a clear message to the Iraqi government and people that they must disarm the militias, they must amend their constitution, they must engage in regional diplomacy to bring more stability and reconstruction to Iraq, and that we must begin the responsible redeployment of our troops outside of Iraq."

Rep. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.), who likely will take over as chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, last year sent Bush a letter calling for the removal of one U.S. brigade -- about 3,500 troops -- for every three Iraqi brigades deemed capable. He said Bush told him his formula was "too rigid," but Skelton said he will press for this approach from his new position of power. "I think this is an important opportunity to begin a new policy direction," he said.

Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), in line to head the House International Relations Committee in the next Congress, said there are few new ideas left to be tried and wasn't sure how much the Baker-Hamilton report would alter the debate.

"You can't unscramble the omelet and the tremendous mistakes that were made after major military operations," he said. "I don't see any magical solutions, but the president may be sending a signal of a change in course" by removing Rumsfeld immediately after the election, he said. "We are willing to meet him halfway."

Democrats yesterday appeared to have little interest in mandating a reduction in U.S. forces through spending cuts, a politically risky step.

Michael O'Hanlon, a defense expert at the Brookings Institution, said congressional Democrats will face some difficult choices as they try to move Bush toward a new approach to the war. He said they could rhetorically put pressure on Bush, but not enough to sound defeatist, keeping blame for policy failures on the GOP.

Democrats also could work with Bush to jointly pressure Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to take more action to end the violence in Iraq, but that would directly associate the Democrats with administration policy.

O'Hanlon said the Baker-Hamilton report might help frame the debate by delivering a diagnosis of the problem that both sides can accept, in contrast to rhetoric from Bush that he said was often "divorced from reality."

Staff writer Michael Abramowitz contributed to this report.