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Bush decides general direction of new Iraq policy as he meets with defense officials

By JENNIFER LOVEN
Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON, Dec. 13, 2006 (AP): U.S. President George W. Bush has decided the general direction he wants to take U.S. policy on Iraq and has asked his staff to work out the details as he wraps up a highly public review of the war and its aims.

Military commanders who met Tuesday with Bush sought more advisers to train the Iraqis, not more U.S. combat troops in Iraq. They also urged the administration to pour significantly more funding into equipment for Iraqi security forces, according to a defense specialist familiar with the meetings.

Gen. John Abizaid, top U.S. commander in the Middle East, and Gen. George Casey, the top general in Iraq, want more armored vehicles, body armor and other critical equipment for the Iraqis, said the defense specialist, who requested anonymity because the discussions were private.

Abizaid has told the Senate Armed Services Committee that troop levels in Iraq need to stay fairly stable and the use of military adviser teams expanded. About 140,000 U.S. troops and about 5,000 advisers are in Iraq.

The message to Bush, the defense specialist said, is that the U.S. cannot withdraw a substantial number of combat troops by early 2008, as suggested in the Iraq Study Group report, because the Iraqis will not be ready to assume control of their country. Bush is delaying making public his new Iraq policy plan in part to allow officials to work out the funding, he said.

Bush scheduled a session Wednesday with senior defense officials at the Pentagon. He already has visited this week with State Department officials to review options, hosted a few outside Iraq experts, and met with Iraq’s Sunni vice president, Tariq al-Hashemi. Last week, the president held talks with the leader of the largest Shiite bloc in Iraq's parliament, Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, and with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the president's staunchest war ally.

Iraq has proposed that its troops assume primary responsibility for security in Baghdad early next year and that U.S. troops be shifted to the capital's periphery, The New York Times reported on its Web site Tuesday night.

Iraq’s national security adviser, Mowaffak al-Rubaie, told the Times that the plan was presented during Bush's meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in Amman, Jordan, on Nov. 30.

Bush’s meetings at the Pentagon were expected to cap his high-profile outreach effort, which surrounded last week's presentation of the Iraq Study Group report, a blistering review from an independent, bipartisan commission.

The Iraq Study Group recommended most combat troops be withdrawn by early 2008 and the U.S. mission changed from combat to training and support of Iraqi units. It also called for an energetic effort to seek a diplomatic solution to Iraq's violence by engaging its neighbors, including Iran and Syria.

Bush, cool to both of the commission's central ideas, had been expected to follow his information-gathering with a pre-Christmas announcement of his own altered blueprint for U.S. involvement in Iraq. But the White House, citing the president's request for more time to refine and game out new policies, said Tuesday that Bush would wait until early next year.

“It's not ready yet,'' White House press secretary Tony Snow said. ``There may be some areas on which there are still going to be debates, but most have kind of been ironed out.''

Dissatisfaction with the president's handling of the war is at an all-time high. Democrats take control of Congress on Jan. 4 because of midterm elections that turned in large part on that issue.

Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., about to become Senate majority leader, criticized Bush's decision to delay unveiling the new Iraq plan.

“It has been six weeks since the American people demanded change in Iraq. In that time Iraq has descended further toward all-out civil war and all the president has done is fire Donald Rumsfeld and conduct a listening tour,'' Reid said. ``Talking to the same people he should have talked to four years ago does not relieve the president of the need to demonstrate leadership and change his policy now.''

The White House first began suggesting the pre-Christmas goal a month after outgoing Pentagon chief Donald H. Rumsfeld resigned and Bush nominated Gates to replace him. Gates plans to go to Iraq shortly after he is sworn in next Monday.

Snow said Bush told his staff Tuesday that he wanted more information about the ramifications for the U.S. military, Iraq's internal politics, regional relations and other matters.

Bush showed no indication of his leanings.

“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,'' the president said Tuesday, al-Hashemi at his side. He took no questions.

Associated Press writers Lolita C. Baldor and Anne Plummer Flaherty contributed to this report.

Iraq Study Group Report (pdf)

 

 

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