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Bush meets with critics of Iraq report

WASHINGTON—President Bush kicked off a weeklong search Monday for new ideas on Iraq by hearing from war supporters who've criticized the Iraq Study Group, the bipartisan commission that gave its recommendations last week.

The closed White House meeting with selected outside experts and retired generals was another indication that Bush remains committed to his overall strategy in Iraq and intends to pick and choose from among the study group's 79 recommendations. He also is awaiting advice from the Joint Chiefs of Staff, his National Security Council and more outside experts.

Some of the outsiders were early supporters of the Iraq war. Although they've criticized the Bush administration's handling of the war, most of them share the president's desire to keep U.S. troops in Iraq until it's able to provide its own security and defend its borders.

The study group seemed far less committed. It urged Bush to drop his open-ended commitment to Iraq and set a goal of withdrawing combat troops by early 2008.

Bush, who also stopped in Monday at the State Department for advice, hopes to announce his latest plan for Iraq next week. Although he's rejected any talk of a timetable for withdrawal, at least one of the study group's proposals is finding favor at the White House: speeding up the transfer of responsibility to Iraqis.

"One of the things we're trying to do is help this government get on its feet so it can govern. ... The role of America is to help this young democracy survive," Bush said at the State Department.

Administration officials also are discussing whether to throw U.S. political support behind Iraq's majority Shiite Muslim Arab population and its Kurds, while downplaying efforts at reconciliation with its Sunni Arabs. The controversial proposal is sometimes known as the "80 percent solution," because Shiites and Kurds make up about 80 percent of Iraq's population.

A senior U.S. government official, speaking on condition of anonymity because the review isn't complete, said the Sunnis wouldn't be written off completely.

Still, he said, the American attempt to reach out to the Sunnis, who held most power and privilege in Iraq under Saddam Hussein, has "alienated those people on the fence and those people who are favorable (to U.S. goals), and gained precious little."

The strategy has risks, officials acknowledge. One is that it would alienate Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan, which are Sunni-led nations whose help Washington needs to stabilize Iraq. It also might increase sectarian tensions, undermining the goal of a pluralistic society and increasing the influence of Shiite-dominated Iran.

Bush is soliciting advice on Iraq during a listening tour that White House aides acknowledged is intended to show that he's open to a range of ideas. The flurry of activity also might help draw attention away from the Iraq Study Group's conclusion that his Iraq policy has failed.

Bush will continue his outreach Tuesday with a video teleconference with American officials and military commanders in Iraq, followed by an Oval Office meeting with Iraqi Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi, a Sunni Arab. He'll seek more advice Wednesday at the Pentagon. Foreign diplomats can weigh in at a reception Friday for the diplomatic corps.

At least four of the five analysts and retired generals who met Monday with Bush have criticized the study group's report, some harshly.

"This is no way to run a war, and most definitely, no way to win it," military historian Eliot Cohen, one of the experts, wrote Thursday in The Wall Street Journal, the day after the report's release. Cohen, who teaches at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies, called the study group "something of a farce" and said some of its recommendations were "sheer fantasy."

He was particularly skeptical about suggestions calling for Bush to seek help from Iran and Syria, a move that the president also opposes.

Two of the former military officers who went to the White House on Monday, retired Gen. Jack Keane and retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey, took issue with the group's goal of withdrawing combat troops by early 2008.

"Based on where we are now, we can't get there," Keane told The New York Times last week. McCaffrey was even more dismissive, telling the newspaper that the ideas about withdrawal "don't make sense" and are "a recipe for national humiliation."

Another outside adviser, Stephen Biddle of the Council on Foreign Relations, said the study group seemed to put a higher priority on getting out of Iraq than on stabilizing it.

Retired Gen. Wayne Downing, the other outside expert who went to the White House, doesn't appear to have taken a public position on the report. Downing, a former White House counterterrorism adviser, was an early advocate of the war.

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(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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