Iraq panel to urge changes; Bush briefed on findings

Senior administration official: "There will be some disagreements but a lot we can work with."

bush sad 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
bush sad 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
The Bush administration signaled differences Tuesday with some of the recommendations of a commission exploring new approaches in Iraq but said there was support for many of the proposals as well. President Bush was briefed on the findings of the commission's report by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, the Iraq Study Group's Republican co-chairman, over lunch at the White House. Afterward, a senior administration official said that "there will be some disagreements but a lot we can work with." The official said Bush's reaction was "generally pretty positive." The official refused to be identified because the report was not to be released until Wednesday. The official refused to specify the areas of difference or approval. The full commission, led by Baker and former Democratic Rep. Lee Hamilton of Indiana, was to present the report to Bush at 7 a.m. EST. The report is expected to urge the US to reach out for more help on Iraq's security - including Iran and Syria as part of a larger group - and to gradually change US troops' mission from combat to training and support, with a broad goal of withdrawing the Americans by early 2008. The commission also will recommend that Bush threaten to reduce economic and military support for the Iraqi government if it doesn't meet certain benchmarks for improving security, The Washington Post reported Wednesday. Before release of the highly anticipated report, the White House sought to dampen expectations by emphasizing that Bush will be listening to other voices as well. Even as the administration pushed back against the idea that a major change is coming, it appeared to be maneuvering separately from the commission to set the stage for adjustments. "We're going to give it a careful review," said White House press secretary Tony Snow. "As we have mentioned, there are other ongoing studies within the administration." Bush has resisted engagement with Iran and Syria, which the US accuses of being bad actors on the world stage as well as fomenting instability in Iraq. He also has rejected any timetable for U.S. troop drawdowns. From Baghdad, though, 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 Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki during a meeting in Jordan last week. Previous Iraqi predictions 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 was seen as one way out for the administration. And the White House reacted warmly to al-Maliki's announcement Tuesday 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. 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 al-Maliki's US-backed government will ever be able to calm 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 urged Bush to present a plan for some of the 140,000 US 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 - a conclusion he said he reached while a member of the Iraq commission. But he played down the likelihood of the commission coming up with a quick solution. "It's my impression that, frankly, there are no new ideas on Iraq," said Gates, who left the commission when Bush nominated him to be defense secretary. The Senate panel voted 24-0 to recommend his confirmation. The Iraq commission members gathered at a Washington hotel Tuesday to receive their copies of the report, thick black binders that each carried out, and their marching orders for media interviews on Wednesday. "But of course," said lobbyist and commission member Vernon Jordan when asked if the group was satisfied with its product, but everyone stayed mum on details. Bush, to be joined by Vice President Dick Cheney, White House chief of staff Joshua Bolten, national security adviser Stephen Hadley and other senior White House aides, planned to thank the commission but not comment publicly on the specifics of its recommendations, another official said. Following the presentation to the president, the group is to brief al-Maliki and his team via secure videoconference from the White House. In about two weeks, Bush is expected to hear 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. Snow said the president already is taking the advice of Sen. John Warner (news, bio, voting record), R-Va., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, who said Bush has a "moral obligation" to seek input on a new Iraq strategy from Democrats who are about to take control of Congress.