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Rice confirms President Bush is considering more troops for Iraq

WASHINGTON—Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Tuesday that President Bush is considering a surge of additional U.S. troops into Iraq to help secure Baghdad—despite strong reservations by some U.S. military leaders and the incoming chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.

"The president has to decide whether he thinks some adjustments in American troop levels and what American troops would do is necessitated by current circumstances," Rice said.

"Anything he considers will certainly look at what can be done about the security of Baghdad," Rice said, describing sectarian violence in the capital as the main stumbling block to a more peaceful Iraq.

Rice said Bush, who's due to announce his new tactics in early January, wouldn't decide before further consultations with new Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and military commanders.

But a number of active and retired generals already have expressed serious doubts about sending more troops to Iraq, saying there's little likelihood that the 20,000 to 30,000 troops under discussion would make a difference.

Rice's predecessor as secretary of state, retired Gen. Colin Powell, said Sunday that sending more troops would strain the overstretched U.S. Army and wouldn't necessarily do much good.

"What mission is it these troops are to accomplish? Is it to secure Baghdad? In which case, the American Army isn't large enough to secure Baghdad, and we should not use our troops as policemen," Powell told CBS News.

Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo., incoming chairman of the House Armed Service Committee, told reporters Tuesday that sending more troops probably wouldn't stop the violence and "could actually exacerbate the situation even further."

The White House sought to play down reports of a rift over Iraq strategy with the uniformed military.

"I think people are trying to create a fight between the president and the Joint Chiefs where one does not exist," White House spokesman Tony Snow said. He confirmed that the president is considering more troops but emphasized that Bush has made no final decisions.

Rice's comments on Iraq came during an hour-long interview with McClatchy Newspapers and other papers, much of which she spent defending U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and elsewhere from rising public criticism.

On another topic, Cuba, Rice reiterated that should ailing leader Fidel Castro die, the United States won't try to engage his brother, Raul, who's temporarily in charge and is Fidel's presumed successor.

Giving an impression of American outreach "from one dictator to another" would be "the worst betrayal" of Cubans, she said.

With Iraq in near chaos, Palestinian factions fighting in the streets of Gaza, and Iran flexing its muscle throughout the Middle East, Rice's stewardship of foreign policy has come under increasing criticism.

In an implicit rebuke two weeks ago, the Iraq Study Group called on the administration to open talks with Iran and Syria, a move Bush and Rice almost immediately rejected.

Rice dismissed the idea that the administration might back off pushing for democracy in the Middle East, a course that critics say has added to instability and increased the strength of Islamists.

Asked what would be new about U.S. foreign policy in 2007, Rice replied: "Let's talk first about what is constant."

The Middle East, Rice argued, is at a "clarifying moment," with extremists on one side and moderate forces on the other. In the first camp she put Iran and Syria; in the second, mainstream states such as Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

In the coming year, "the one possible opportunity is to have a coalescence of these more mainstream, moderate forces," she said. The goal would be to build support for the fragile democratic governments of Lebanon and Iraq, and to make progress toward the establishment of a Palestinian state.

Rice plans to travel to the Middle East in the first half of January, after Bush's speech on Iraq, to resume diplomacy in the Arab-Israeli dispute.

But the effort is complicated by the failure of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and the Hamas-led Palestinian assembly to form a national unity government.

Rice's critics say that the Middle East she sees—where democracy is slowly but unevenly on the rise—isn't matched by the chaotic reality on the ground.

"I'm not arguing that it's just going great—no," Rice responded. But, comparing the current era to the onset of the Cold War in the late 1940s, she said: "At the beginning of big historical transitions, everything is on the table. Yes, it can go wrong. But yes, it can go right."

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(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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