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Bush meets with Iraq Study Group

WASHINGTON—President Bush met Monday with members of a high-level panel that's seeking solutions to the war in Iraq, and he afterward reiterated his view that conditions on the ground rather than artificial timetables should determine when the United States withdraws its troops.

Bush's remarks conflicted with renewed calls by some Democratic leaders to begin U.S. troop withdrawals within six months and raised questions about whether a bipartisan approach to Iraq is possible in the wake of last week's midterm elections.

Members of the Iraq Study Group, led by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III and former Indiana Democratic congressman Lee Hamilton, conferred with Bush and his aides at the White House and held separate meetings with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, top intelligence officials and the senior U.S. civilian and military officials in Iraq.

The congressionally mandated, 10-member panel is considering a host of proposals to extricate the United States from Iraq, including a phased troop withdrawal, a last-ditch effort to stabilize the country, and reaching out to U.S. adversaries in the region, including Iran and Syria.

It's expected to issue its recommendations, which are being prepared in secrecy, sometime next month.

Proposals for a broader Middle East strategy to reverse the deteriorating situation in Iraq got a boost Monday from British Prime Minister Tony Blair. In a London speech, Blair called on Syria and Iran to help stabilize Iraq and repeated his long-standing proposal for a renewed effort to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Democrats, who took control of the House of Representatives and Senate in last week's elections, signaled that they'll move ahead with plans to pressure the White House into starting to withdraw the 140,000 U.S. troops in Iraq.

Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., the expected new chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said that while he'll await the Baker-Hamilton recommendations, he plans to round up a bipartisan majority to support a non-binding resolution calling on Bush to begin withdrawing U.S. troops within six months.

"If we're able to do that, if we're able to put together that bipartisan resolution in both houses, I think it would have immense power on events and on the president," Levin said. He acknowledged, however, that "it's a tall order to put together a majority."

Bush has steadfastly rejected timelines for a U.S. troop withdrawal, saying progress in Iraq should dictate when American forces come home. While the president acknowledged the need for "a fresh perspective" on Iraq last week, on Monday he reiterated his view on troop withdrawals.

"I believe it is very important ... for people making suggestions to recognize that the best military options depend upon the conditions on the ground," Bush said at an appearance with visiting Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

As to the Baker-Hamilton recommendations, Bush said: "I'm not sure what the report is going to say. I'm looking forward to seeing it."

As U.S. and Iraqi forces struggle with a two-sided conflict against sectarian militias and terrorist insurgents, and as Iraq's central government weakens, there are few, if any, good solutions left, according to current and former U.S. officials, including some advising the Baker-Hamilton group.

In his remarks, Bush also appeared to take a dim view of reaching out to Iran, saying it first must give up its suspected nuclear weapons ambitions.

"I think it's very important for the world to unite with one common voice to say to the Iranians that, if you choose to continue forward, you'll be isolated," he said. "And one source of isolation would be economic isolation."

But later Monday, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack wouldn't rule out talks with Iranian representatives on the subject of Iraq, as opposed to its nuclear program. Those "are two separate issues," he said.

Bush administration officials argue that neither Iran nor Syria has shown any willingness to help stabilize Iraq, and that both would likely demand concessions from Washington on other fronts.

U.S. ally Israel also argues for a tough approach to the two countries, seeing them as major backers of terrorism in Lebanon, the Palestinian areas and elsewhere.

Members of the Iraq Study Group are due to meet Tuesday with Democratic foreign policy experts, including Warren Christopher and Samuel R. Berger, who were secretary of state and national security adviser, respectively, to President Clinton.

In a statement after the White House meetings, Baker and Hamilton said, "The ISG is independent, bipartisan and open to all views. ... We are working expeditiously to complete our report and recommendations."

Rice also has been holding in-house meetings at the State Department to review Iraq policy in recent days, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff are conducting their own review of U.S. military tactics in Iraq.

Officials portrayed the State Department review as wide-ranging, looking at such sensitive questions as dividing Iraq into three semi-autonomous regions for its Shiite Muslim, Sunni Arab and Kurdish populations. The officials requested anonymity because they weren't authorized to speak for the record.

With support for a U.S. troop withdrawal gaining in Washington, a representative of Iraq's Kurds pleaded for more time to set the country on its feet.

Qubad Talabani told a conference sponsored by the private Middle East Institute that while Iraqis understand that the U.S. public's patience is waning, pushing too fast "will lead to failure. ... I'm afraid the whole project will come crashing down."

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(McClatchy Newspapers correspondent Margaret Talev contributed to this report.)

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(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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