Pressure builds for policy shift, but Bush shows no signs of budging
By Ron Hutcheson and Nancy A. Youssef
WASHINGTON - Appalled by spiraling violence in Iraq and frustrated by Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki's failure to quell it, American officials are grasping for new ways to keep the conflict from spinning out of control.
But President Bush has given no indication that he's ready to make dramatic changes in his Iraq policy, which has come to define his presidency and dominate next month's congressional elections. If anything, the president's public comments and those of his senior aides suggest that he's more determined than ever to stay the course.
Senior U.S. military, diplomatic and intelligence officials, however, have concluded that Maliki's Iraqi government is either unwilling or unable to crack down on the country's Shiite Muslim militias. Some even have suggested that the United States should consider beginning to withdraw some troops to increase the pressure on Maliki to take decisive action.
Bush and his aides, however, say he won't retreat from his vision of a united, stable, secure and democratic Iraq.
"Our goal in Iraq is clear and it's unchanging: a country that can sustain itself, a country that can govern itself, a country that can defend itself, and a country which will be an ally in the war against these extremists," Bush said Friday at a Republican fundraiser.
White House spokesman Tony Snow said Friday that Bush has rejected two of the most frequently mentioned options: a phased U.S. withdrawal or a partition that would divide Iraq into Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish regions. He said that Bush is open to changes in tactics that could help achieve his goals, but won't consider any deviation from his core strategy.
"Leaving is not going to work, and partition is simply off the table," Snow said. "The strategy's going to be the same, which is an Iraq that can sustain, govern and defend itself."
That leaves senior American officials and commanders in Iraq in a tough place. They've acknowledged that the current approach isn't working, and that they're looking for an alternative. But the decision ultimately is the president's.
Lawmakers in both parties agree that Bush will face more pressure to change course if Republicans lose control of Congress next month.
Calls for change by the independent Iraq Study Group, headed by former Secretary of State James Baker, a Bush family friend, might sway the president. Baker, who's said that the group won't release its findings until after the Nov. 7 elections, has pledged to consider all options, but Snow already has made it clear that Bush won't be bound by the group's advice.
"This is something you listen to seriously, but we are not going to outsource the business of handling the war in Iraq," he said. "The president is the commander-in-chief. And simply because you have a blue ribbon panel, it does not mean that he hands it off to them."
The pressure for change - from commanders in Iraq, from voters and from Bush's fellow Republicans - is building, and a flurry of meetings has prompted speculation that some changes may be afoot.
Bush invited Gen. John Abizaid, the top U.S. commander in the region, to the White House Friday for an update on Iraq, and the president will hear from commanders in the field in a videoconference on Saturday that will include Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.
A senior defense official said that Marine Gen. Peter Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also has begun taking a more active role in shaping discussions about Iraq strategy, meeting regularly with military commanders and retired officers who've returned from the region.
But the official, who declined to be named because he wasn't authorized to speak on the record, was skeptical that the discussions would lead to "a major overhaul" of Iraq strategy, even though Pace acknowledged at a luncheon with reporters last week that the current strategy hasn't worked.
"I think conceptually the strategy is correct," the official said, "and I think operationally there may be a need for some adjustment to achieve the desired results."
At a Pentagon news conference Friday, Rumsfeld declined to say whether he'd offer any new ideas, but he stressed the current goal of transferring security responsibility to Iraqi forces.
"It's their country. They're going to have to govern it," Rumsfeld said. "They're going to have to provide security for it, and they're going to have to do it sooner rather than later. And that means they've got to take pieces of it as they go along."
U.S. officials in Iraq, however, concede that the handoff to Iraqis hasn't gone as planned.
On Thursday, Army Maj. Gen. William Caldwell, the chief U.S. spokesman in Iraq, announced that a two-month effort to stabilize Baghdad has fallen far short of its goals. Shiite death squads continue to operate with near impunity, other officials said, and sectarian violence is increasing - up 22 percent in the first three weeks of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan over previous weeks, Caldwell said. The Iraqi government is plagued by corruption and ineffectiveness.
Earlier this week, Iraqi forces lost control of the mostly Shiite city of Balad, months after U.S. forces handed control of the community to local leaders. U.S. forces had to intervene to stop tit-for-tat violence between the residents of Balad and neighboring Sunnis.
On Friday, hundreds of Shiite militiamen took over three police stations in the southern city of Amara. British troops joined Iraqi security forces in trying to restore order.
U.S. officials were particularly frustrated by Maliki's recent decision to order the release of Sheik Mazin al Saidy, a top associate of fiery Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose Mahdi Army militia is thought to be responsible for much of the sectarian killings.
U.S. officials had planned to trumpet the arrest as a significant step toward stopping the surge of sectarian violence. But Maliki intervened and demanded Saidy's release, pointing out that he was the elected leader of a democratic Iraq.
To Iraqi Sunnis, the decision was more evidence that the Iraqi government is aligned with Shiite death squads. To U.S. military officials, it was a troubling development in their campaign to crack down on sectarian violence.
Some senior officials in Washington, all of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity because their reports are classified and their advice to the president and the defense secretary is confidential, echoed the frustrations in Iraq.
Some have concluded that current U.S. troop levels and deployments aren't sufficient to stem the rising sectarian violence, but that sending additional troops wouldn't change the equation. Some say that the U.S. effort to train Iraqi police and troops to take over security has failed because the Iraqi forces are either overwhelmed by or in league with sectarian militias.
Earlier this week, former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage suggested a gradual reduction of U.S. troops, perhaps at a rate of about 5 percent every few months.
"We can't win on the battlefield," said Armitage, who served throughout Bush's first term. "The problem is that this is now a political struggle being carried out amid chaos, and we can't wish stability on the Iraqis. They have to be willing to fight for it."
Asked if he thought that staying the course remains an option, Armitage replied: "If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result, then clearly it isn't. The problem is that you can change tactics in an hour, but it takes time to change strategy, and it's too late for that now."
One senior official said advocates of change have mounted a "low-wattage mutiny" to try to convince Bush to try a new approach.
So far, though, it seems to have had little impact on the president.
"All these proposals have one thing in common: they would have our country quit in Iraq before the job is done," Bush said on Thursday at another Republican fundraiser, after summing up the various options offered by his critics. "America will stay, we will fight, and we will win in Iraq."
© 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
Hutcheson reported from Washington, Youssef from Baghdad. McClatchy correspondents Drew Brown and John Walcott in Washington contributed to this report.