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Bush piles up strategy sessions on Iraq

President Bush is piling up strategy sessions on Iraq, aiming to reverse the course of the war and energize his final two years in office.
/ Source: The Associated Press

President Bush is piling up strategy sessions on Iraq, aiming to reverse the course of the war and energize his final two years in office.

On Monday, Bush was meeting with senior State Department officials to review diplomatic and political options — the latest in a series of consultations that dominate his agenda. Later, in the Oval Office, he was asking historians and former generals for their views.

Still promising to prevail in Iraq, the president plans to unveil a new strategy to a disillusioned public by Christmas. Administration officials are weighing options, including a short-term buildup of troops and a revamped approach to dealing with Iraq’s warring factions.

Whatever the choice, Bush is out to show he isn’t acting alone. He is seeking advice at home and abroad — brought on by a humbling election in which voters handed control of Congress to Democrats and made clear their dissatisfaction with progress in Iraq.

'Unusually intensive' spate of meetings
On Tuesday, Bush will meet via video conference with senior military commanders and the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, and then host Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi in the Oval Office. On Wednesday, he meets with officials at the Pentagon.

Last week, Bush met with Shiite political leader Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, members of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, plus lawmakers from the armed services, intelligence and foreign relations committees.

“This is unusually intensive, as you would expect, given the situation we find ourselves in,” White House counselor Dan Bartlett said Sunday.

“It’s a very complex set of issues, ranging from military strategy and tactical decisions to economic and political and diplomatic matters,” Bartlett said. “All these elements coming together will help him sort through all the different interests and recommendations, and then pull it together for a comprehensive decision and announcement.”

'Grave and deteriorating' situation in Iraq
The urgency and the pressure are rising.

Republican Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi, the incoming No. 2 GOP leader, said Sunday: “The president this week is going to be meeting with any and everybody he can talk to.”

“He knows that the circumstances are not what we wanted them to be, and that you’ve got to do some different things,” Lott said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”

Americans’ dissatisfaction with Bush’s handling of Iraq is at an all-time high of 71 percent in the latest Associated Press-Ipsos poll.

Heading toward the new year, Bush is awaiting reports from the Pentagon, the State Department and the National Security Council.

He has already received the highly anticipated findings of the Iraq Study Group, headed by Republican James A. Baker III and Democrat Lee Hamilton. The group called the situation in Iraq “grave and deteriorating” and urged a broad new direction.

Bush — while lauding the group’s effort and bipartisan spirit — has been cool to the panel’s key proposals, including direct engagement of Iran and Syria as part of a new diplomatic initiative. The panel also called for withdrawing most U.S. combat forces from Iraq by March 2008 and shifting the U.S. mission to one of training and advising.

On Sunday, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani harshly criticized the bipartisan report. He called it “very dangerous,” saying it would undermine Iraq’s sovereignty because it could allow thousands of officials from Saddam Hussein’s ousted party to return to their jobs.

Can Bush change course?
Complicating matters is the study group’s assertion that its ideas are interdependent and shouldn’t be considered like menu items. Picking and choosing ideas from all the ongoing reviews, however, may be precisely what the administration does. White House officials have made clear that Bush, as commander in chief, has responsibility to decide the best military course.

The incoming chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Democratic Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware, said Sunday that he doubts Bush “has the capacity to change” his approach to Iraq.

“He has this wholesome but naive view that Western notions of liberty are easily transposed to that area of the world,” Biden said on ABC’s “This Week.”

Bush maintains that the Iraq can become a nation able to govern and defend itself, and serve as an ally against terrorist groups.