President Bush got a preview Tuesday of the Iraq commission's ideas for changes in war policies, while the White House sought to dampen the report's impact in advance by emphasizing the president will be listening to other voices as well.
Over lunch at the White House, former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, the Iraq Study Group's Republican co-chairman, gave Bush and his advisers a heads-up about the general direction of the conclusions.
The report will be released Wednesday morning. The full commission, led by Baker and former Democratic Rep. Lee Hamilton of Indiana, will meet with Bush at 7 a.m. EST.
"We're going to give it a careful review," White House press secretary Tony Snow said. "As we have mentioned, there are other ongoing studies within the administration."
Signs of concern
Snow said the president already is taking the advice of Sen. John Warner, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, who said Tuesday that Bush had a "moral obligation" to seek input on a new Iraq strategy from Democrats who are about to take control of Congress.
The war has surpassed the length of American involvement in World War II, and U.S. deaths have passed 2,900. A relentless insurgency and the added complication of increased fighting between religious and ethnic factions have raised questions about whether Iraq is embroiled in a civil war and whether the U.S.-backed government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki will ever be capable of calming the country.
A changed political environment at home has added to the pressure on Bush. Democrats wrested majorities in the House and Senate from the president's Republican Party in last month's midterm elections, in large part because of dissatisfaction with the war.
On Capitol Hill Tuesday, the confirmation hearing for Robert Gates - who is expected to be approved to replace embattled Pentagon chief Donald H. Rumsfeld - became a vehicle for lawmakers to express their displeasure, too. Democrats as well as some Republicans have called on Bush to present a plan for some of the 140,000 U.S. troops to begin coming home.
Replying to a question, Gates contradicted Bush's previous statements and said the United States is not winning in Iraq. But he played down the likelihood of the Iraq commission coming up with a quick solution.
"It's my impression that, frankly, there are no new ideas on Iraq," said Gates, who was a member of the commission until his nomination to be defense secretary.
In its report on Wednesday, the panel is expected to urge the U.S. to reach out for more help on Iraq's security - including Iran and Syria as part of a larger group - and to gradually change the mission of U.S. troops from combat to training and support, with a broad goal of withdrawing the Americans by early 2008.
The president has resisted engagement with Iran and Syria, which the U.S. accuse of being bad actors on the world stage as well as fomenting instability in Iraq. Bush has rejected any timetable for U.S. troop drawdowns.
But the administration appeared to be maneuvering separately from the commission to set the stage for some changes on both fronts.
From Baghdad, the top American military spokesman said the Pentagon expects all of Iraq to be under the control of Iraqi forces by the middle of next year.
Maj. Gen. William Caldwell said this is part of an accelerated timetable discussed by Bush and al-Maliki during a meeting in Jordan last week. Previous predictions by the Iraqis of their abilities to take over have fallen by the wayside, but al-Maliki's statement last week that Iraq soldiers and police would be up to speed by June were seen as one way out for the administration.
And the White House reacted warmly to Tuesday's announcement by al-Maliki that his government wants a conference with neighboring nations, such as Iran and Syria, on ending the violence.
"It's a good idea for the Iraqis to be involved in working with their neighbors on issues of regional security," Snow said.
A powerful Iraqi Shiite political leader, Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, also returned to the White House Tuesday to meet with Vice President Dick Cheney. He met with Bush on Monday.
Meanwhile, Bush is expected to hear in about two weeks the conclusions of in-house examinations of Iraq policy, anchored by a review of military options by Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.