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Bush weighing deeper commitment in Iraq, officials say

WASHINGTON—President Bush is weighing whether to make a deeper American commitment in Iraq despite growing public unhappiness with the war, according to senior U.S. officials and former officials familiar with Bush's high-level review.

The proposed changes, with a few exceptions, conflict with the recommendations of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, which warned earlier this month against an open-ended commitment to Iraq and said American combat brigades could be out of Iraq by early 2008.

The president signaled Wednesday that neither the study group's pessimistic assessment nor the bleak situation in Iraq nor the results of the midterm elections have shaken his belief that victory in Iraq is possible.

"We're not going to give up," said Bush, who plans to announce his new strategy early next year.

While some key decisions haven't been made yet, the senior officials said the emerging strategy includes:

_A shift in the primary U.S. military mission in Iraq from combat to training an expanded Iraqi army, generally in line with the Iraq Study Group's recommendations.

_A possible short-term surge of as many as 40,000 more American troops to try to secure Baghdad, along with a permanent increase in the size of the U.S. Army and the Marine Corps, which are badly strained by deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Military commanders look warily at a surge, saying that even 20,000 more soldiers and Marines may not be available and wouldn't necessarily help reduce Iraq's violence.

"We would not surge without a purpose," Gen. Peter Schoomaker, the Army's chief of staff, said Thursday. "And that purpose should be measurable."

_A revised Iraq political strategy aimed at forging a "moderate center" of Shiite Muslim, Sunni Muslim Arab and Kurdish politicians that would bolster embattled Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki. The goal would be to marginalize radical Shiite militias and Sunni insurgents.

_More money to combat rampant unemployment among Iraqi youths and to advance reconstruction, much of it funneled to groups, areas and leaders who support Maliki and oppose the radicals.

_Rejection of the study group's call for an urgent, broad new diplomatic initiative in the Middle East to address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and reach out to Iran and Syria.

Instead, the administration is considering convening a conference of Iraq and neighboring countries—excluding Iran and Syria—as part of an effort to pressure the two countries to stop interfering in Iraq.

It remains far from clear whether these moves would help stabilize Iraq, where a civil war rages nearly four years after the U.S.-led invasion.

Only a year ago, on Nov. 30, 2005, Bush, under pressure to show progress, unveiled a "National Strategy for Victory in Iraq." Then, as now, he pledged to focus on training Iraq's security forces.

Bush also faces huge hurdles in getting public support behind his latest plan. Disapproval of his handling of Iraq has shot up to anywhere from 60 percent to 75 percent this month in polls.

"If he's going to trash the Iraq Study Group report, he's going to have to come up with something coherent, different and that is demonstrably better. I think he's not likely to persuade the country that he's done so," said Larry Diamond of Stanford University's Hoover Institution, who was among the study group's expert advisers.

The study group, chaired by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III and retired Congressman Lee Hamilton, released its report Dec. 6.

Bush appears to have been emboldened by criticism of its proposals as defeatist by members of the Republican Party's conservative wing and their allies on the Internet, the radio and cable TV.

Diamond and others close to the group said the report's primary value had been to focus White House and public attention on what the document termed the "grave and deteriorating" situation in Iraq.

The president and his national security team "are going to pick and choose from the Iraq report, and they're not going to choose much," a recently retired U.S. official predicted.

He and others spoke on the condition of anonymity because Bush's policy review is still under way.

According to a senior State Department official, the president is listening closely to a former Republican secretary of state, but it isn't Baker. Henry Kissinger, a frequent White House visitor, has been to see Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice a half-dozen times, he said.

In recent public comments, Kissinger has warned that an early withdrawal of the 140,000 U.S. troops in Iraq could lead to the country's breakup, although he's also questioned whether victory in Iraq is possible.

In an interview Thursday with CNN, Kissinger said he didn't think Bush could achieve his goal of a democratic Iraq before his term ended in two years. But he said he thought that the president could fashion a strategy that stabilized the country, allowed normal civilian life to return and provided incentives to political leaders to reconcile internally and with other countries in the region.

Kissinger said he'd favor a temporary American troop increase if U.S. military commanders determined that it could make a difference as part of a broader political strategy.

"That, I think, is achievable. For that, I think, increased capability would play a role if only because it would show that the United States is not just running out ... because this conflict will not end in Iraq," Kissinger said. "We are dealing with a movement, and it's running through the Islamic world."

Two senior Iraqi officials confirmed Thursday that Bush is considering a short-term increase in the number of U.S. troops in Baghdad as part of a new strategy to contain the escalating civil war.

Iraqi Vice President Tariq al Hashemi, a leader of the country's Sunnis, said after a speech Thursday at a U.S. government-funded institute in Washington that he and Bush had discussed the option Tuesday in a meeting at the White House.

Hashemi said that while he favored the idea, Bush should set "a timetable" for eventually withdrawing all American forces, linked to "serious efforts to reform the Iraqi military and security forces."

The reforms must include re-enlisting Iraqi soldiers and low-ranking officers who'd been excluded from the new forces under sweeping U.S.-approved purges of members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party, he said.

Iraqi Ambassador to the United States Samir Sumaidaie, in a brief interview after Hashemi's speech, said the options that Bush was reviewing included putting more Iraqi forces in the capital.

He and Hashemi confirmed that Bush and his top aides are exploring the formation of a new government coalition to strengthen Maliki.

In a memo leaked last month to The New York Times, National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley said the White House would consider "monetary support" for moderate Iraqi groups that broke with sectarian parties and backed Maliki.

Hashemi said he'd be willing to lead his bloc of Sunni politicians into such a coalition, despite sharp differences with potential Shiite and Kurdish members.

He urged caution in dealing with radical anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who controls the largest bloc of Shiite seats in parliament and heads the Mahdi Army, the Shiite militia that's blamed for much of the anti-Sunni violence in Baghdad.

Hashemi suggested that there might be a way to crack down on the militia while drawing the firebrand cleric's supporters into a new coalition. Excluding Sadr's followers could trigger a backlash that worsens the violence, he said.


(McClatchy correspondent John Walcott contributed to this report.)


(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.