Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Bush skeptical of Democrat troop reduction idea

Bush skeptical of Democrat troop reduction idea
By Steve Holland

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President George W. Bush, under pressure by the new Democratic majority in the U.S. Congress to change course in Iraq, reacted skeptically on Monday to their call for a phased troop withdrawal.

Bush met behind closed doors with members of a bipartisan panel expected to press him to shift strategy in Iraq in the face of unrelenting violence, rising U.S. casualties and concern among Americans that there is no end in sight to the war.

The independent Iraq Study Group, led by former Secretary of State James Baker, a Republican with close ties to the Bush family, and former Democratic Rep. Lee Hamilton of Indiana, is to give its report to Bush and the U.S. Congress next month and experts say it could offer Bush a way to change tactics in Iraq.

"We were pleased to meet with senior administration officials today and look forward to our consultations with some prominent Democrats tomorrow," Baker and Hamilton said in a statement. "We are working expeditiously to complete our report and recommendations."

Democrats who rode Americans' anger about the war into control of the House of Representatives and the Senate showed they were eager to flex their newfound muscle.

Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat who will become chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee in January, said Democrats would seek a bipartisan agreement to persuade Bush to start pulling troops out of Iraq in four to six months.

"We've got to put greater responsibility on the Iraqis and the way to do that -- probably the only way to do that -- is to let the Iraqis know that within four to six months of the president notifying them, that we're going to begin a phased redeployment of our troops out of Iraq," Levin said.

This is an option Bush adamantly opposed during the congressional campaign season and there was no early indication he would agree to such a plan now.

"I believe it is very important ... for people making suggestions to recognize that the best military options depend upon the conditions on the ground," he said.

The Iraq Study Group's work has attracted interest from both parties but members have not yet revealed its proposals beyond general statements from Baker that a shift in course is needed.

Bush's meeting with Baker, Hamilton and other members was his first extended session with them. The group also met other top Bush administration policymakers.

It will meet Democratic foreign policy experts on Tuesday, including former national security advisor Sandy Berger, former assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke and former Secretary of State Warren Christopher.

"I'm not sure what the report is going to say," Bush told reporters after meeting with the group. "I'm looking forward to seeing it."

Injecting a note of caution into the possibility of a major shift in strategy, Bush said: "I believe that it's important for us to succeed in Iraq, not only for our security but for the security of the Middle East, and that I'm looking forward to interesting ideas."

White House spokesman Tony Snow said the commission has not yet presented its alternatives to the president.

"This was not proposal shopping by the Iraq Study Group. It was a general conversation about the situation there," he said.

The commission will have a video conference on Tuesday with British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

One approach reportedly being considered by the panel was for Washington to open a dialogue with Iran and Syria, accused by the Bush administration of supporting terrorism and fanning instability in neighboring Iraq.

Blair, Bush's biggest ally on Iraq, called in a speech in London for Syria and Iran to be engaged in efforts to stem violence in Iraq and to secure a broader Middle East peace settlement.

But Bush was cool to such a move, saying Syria needed to get out of Lebanon and Iran needed to abandon its nuclear ambitions.

(Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell, Tabassum Zakaria and Matt Spetalnick)