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Bush returns from Iraq to face scrutiny over policy

WASHINGTON—President Bush returned Thursday from a war summit with Iraq's prime minister to face growing pressure for a new course in Iraq.

The demand for change is likely to increase next week with the release of a blue-ribbon panel's recommendations and Senate confirmation hearings for Defense Secretary-designate Robert Gates. The Pentagon, the State Department and the National Security Council all are reviewing Iraq policy at the White House's request.

So far, Bush has shown no sign that he's ready for a new approach or willing to scale back the U.S. commitment to a war that's claimed more than 2,800 American lives.

"This business about a graceful exit just simply has no realism to it at all," he said during a news conference in Jordan with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

His meeting with al-Maliki underscored how limited the options are for dealing with a conflict that's threatening to spiral out of control.

The two leaders essentially agreed to do more of the same—transfer security responsibilities from U.S. troops to Iraqi forces—but quicken the pace. Bush has been telling Americans for more than a year that "as Iraqis stand up, we will stand down," with little progress evident on either side of that equation. The president also promised to give al-Maliki more authority over his forces.

In an interview with ABC News, al-Maliki predicted that Iraqis would be "fully ready" to take command of security operations by June.

Independent experts were skeptical.

"It will take years, not months, to fix this situation," Anthony Cordesman, a national security specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a center-right research center, said Wednesday.

In Iraq, reactions to Bush's pledge to give the Iraqi government more authority over security were colored by sectarian loyalties. Shiite Muslims, the dominant force in the government, welcomed the president's expressed confidence in al-Maliki. For months, they'd complained that Maliki couldn't make any major decisions about government security forces without American approval.

"Maliki got a positive and official commitment that he would handle the security file," said Abd al Kareem al Anzy, the former state minister for national security and a member of al-Maliki's Dawa Party. "I think the U.S. is serious this time about backing Maliki."

Sunni Muslims, who lost power in the U.S.-led invasion, expressed fears of government-sanctioned sectarian attacks. The Iraqi security forces are largely Shiite, and Sunnis complain that they provide cover for Shiite militias.

"We don't feel it is safe to turn over all of the security responsibilities to the current Iraqi security forces because this will be a disaster. These troops have proven that they are affiliated and infiltrated deeply by the militias," said Omar Abdul Satar, a member of parliament and Iraq's largest Sunni slate, the Iraqi Islamic Party.

Among common Iraqis, there was little interest in the Bush-al-Maliki meeting. After all, the public previously has hung its hopes on numerous committees, summits and resolutions to end the spread of sectarian violence, only to see the situation worsen.

"Frankly, the odds are that things will get worse, not better," said Cordesman, who favors a greater U.S. commitment.

Events next week will spotlight problems in Iraq and possible solutions.

Members of the Senate Armed Services Committee will get a chance to offer their ideas when Gates' confirmation hearing begins Tuesday. Bush's choice to replace Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld will face a panel that includes Sens. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., John McCain, R-Ariz., and Robert Byrd, D-W.Va.

The blue-ribbon Iraq commission, formally known as the Iraq Study Group, will issue its recommendations Wednesday. A person close to the bipartisan commission, who spoke only on condition of anonymity because the commission's chairmen insist that no one disclose information before the recommendations are released, said its report would include a grim assessment of the current situation.

The New York Times reported Thursday that the panel, headed by former Secretary of State James Baker and former Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Ind., would call for gradually withdrawing U.S. combat troops, with no clear timetable. The goal would be to cut the number of troops in Iraq by roughly half, to about 70,000, with greater emphasis on American military advisers to train Iraq's security forces.

The commission also is expected to recommend: greater U.S. diplomatic engagement with Iraq's neighbors, including Iran and Syria; addressing problems with Iraq's reconstruction; and discussing the imperative for political reconciliation among the country's warring sects.

Bush already has rejected suggestions that he reach out to Iran and Syria to seek their cooperation on Iraq. He and his aides also have signaled that he doesn't feel bound to follow the commission's recommendations.

"Obviously, the insights of the Baker-Hamilton commission are going to be a factor as we look forward. But for one to say, `Ah-ha, there they go, there's our blueprint,' it doesn't work that way," a senior administration official told reporters traveling with Bush in Jordan. The official conducted the briefing on condition of anonymity. "The president still is responsible for shaping and conducting foreign policy."

The White House is overseeing its own review of Iraq policy, tying together studies being done by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the State Department and the National Security Council. National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley said the White House review would be ready in "weeks rather than months," but declined to be more specific.

The president also is contemplating convening a meeting on Iraq in the Middle East that would include Iraq and its neighbors, according to a leaked memo from Hadley. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is visiting the region now.

Former senior U.S. diplomat James Dobbins predicted that Bush will be compelled to adopt many of the Baker-Hamilton commission recommendations because support for America's military presence is waning fast in Iraq and the United States, as was evident in the Democrats' takeover of Congress in November's elections.

"At some point, one public or the other will simply pull the plug," said Dobbins, who's with the RAND Corp. research center and is among a group of outside experts who have advised the Iraq Survey Group.

By reducing the number of U.S. combat troops and increasing the contingent of military advisers to Iraq's forces, "we have a better chance of sustaining that commitment over the five to 10 years that will probably be necessary," he said.


(Youssef reported from Amman, Jordan. McClatchy Newspapers special correspondents Zaineb Obeid and Mohammed al Dulaimy contributed to this report from Baghdad.)


(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.